Author Archives: Richard Erskine ( @EssaysConcern )

About Richard Erskine ( @EssaysConcern )

Retired having been scientist, information management consultant and artist. I am Secretary of Nailsworth Climate Action Network, working on community centred empowerment and action, and am also a Fellow of The Schumacher Institute based in Bristol, focused on systems thinking. I live in the Cotswolds with my wife and have two daughters and two grandchildren. Interested in multidisciplinary approaches to climate change.

If we can’t stop flying, can we at least stop lying … to ourselves

“Flying is only 2% of global emissions, so it’s ok to fly.” That’s what I heard from a neighbouring table in a restaurant. I didn’t have the heart to lob in a comment “Yeh, but I bet it’s not 2% of your emissions!”

The Oxfam Extreme Carbon Inequality report [1] showed that top 10% by income were responsible for 50% of emissions and bottom 50% were responsible for just 10%, so averages such as that 2% figure can conceal some important truths and not a lttle of moral hazard.

The significant warming that the planet is experiencing [2] is thereby much more of an issue currently of high consumption in the West than population growth in the global south.

We can quite easily get a feel for the numbers.

Let’s start with averages

The world emits about 40 billion (giga) tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (or 40 GtCO₂/yr) from burning fossil fuels [3].

We have a world population of about 8 billion, so the average CO₂ emissions per person is 5 tonnes of CO₂ a year (5 tCO₂/yr).

2% of that figures gives 0.1 tCO₂/yr.

Time to relax?

So what about the average flyer?

2% of 40 GtCO₂/yr is 0.8 GtCO₂/yr, or 800 MtCO₂/yr.

A Smithsonian Mag article [4] estimated that only 6% of the world’s population flew in any one year; 6% of 8 billion is 480 million people.

If we share out the 800 MtCO₂/yr of flying emissions amongst those 480 million in any year, we get 1.7 tCO₂/yr per person. Given that a UK to Madrid flight is estimated as 265 kgCO₂ (0.265 tCO₂) [5], it shows the impact that longer journeys and frequent flyers are having in pushing the average up to over 6 times this number.

Needless to say 1.7 tCO₂/yr is nearly 40% of the world’s average per person total footprint, not a comforting 2%.

What about the UK?

Pre-COVID figures suggest that nearly 50% of UK citizens fly at least once per year, and flying accounts for 7% of the UK’s emissions. However, 1% of UK residents were found to be responsible for 20% of overseas flights [6].

It gets worse

The emissions from flying become stacked higher and higher with increasing income. The top 1% globally emit a staggering 7,500 tCO₂/yr, and are responsible for half of the world’s flying emissions [7].

The takeaway message

Let’s not kid ourselves that our flying emissions are ‘small’. In the UK they are on average 7% of our CO₂ emissions but the actual emissions increases in line with our consumption, which tends to correlate with incomes.

The case for a fair system that does not penalise the least well off, and has an escalating frequent flyer levy, is now undeniable. It needs to be sufficient to disincentivise frequent flying. Whereas the incentives today are completely the opposite. Airlines reward frequent flyers with gold membership cards, priority boarding, deluxe lounges and streams of offers.

As more people in the world gain access to flying, and as the relatively easy-to-decarbonise sectors (like cars and heating) are dealt with, the percentage of emissions from flying – however you wish to measure it – will only grow.

I’m not going to tell anyone “don’t fly!”, how could I? When I was working as a consultant until my retirement in 2016 I was making 10 to 15 flights a year. I’m in no position to preach to anyone. But we have all been in denial about flying, myself included, for too long.

If we can’t stop flying, can we at least stop lying … to ourselves!

(c) Richard W. Erskine, August 2022.

References

  1. Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/extreme-carbon-inequality/
  2. IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3−32, doi:10.1017/9781009157896.001.
  3. See Figure SPM.4(a) in Reference [2]. This does not include the contribution from other greenhouse gases that currently make a lower but still very significant contribution as shown in Figure SPM.2 in Reference [2].
  4. How Much of the World’s Population Has Flown in an Airplane?, Christine Negroni, 6th January 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/how-much-worlds-population-has-flown-airplane-180957719/
  5. Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train?, BBC, 24th August 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49349566
  6. 1% of English residents take one-fifth of overseas flights, survey shows, Niko Kommenda, 25th September 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/25/1-of-english-residents-take-one-fifth-of-overseas-flights-survey-shows
  7. 1% ‘super emitters’ responsible for over 50% of aviation emissions, Andrew Murphy, Transport & Environment, 3rd December 2020, https://www.transportenvironment.org/discover/1-super-emitters-responsible-over-50-aviation-emissions/

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“Stuff & Nonsense” confronts climate change

One would like to imagine that Middle England might have woken up to the reality of climate change with ever more frequent heatwaves (not to mention flooding), but judging from the latest screams of derision from the usual suspects at the warnings of imminent heat stress, it’s hard to tell.

So, how do we navigate the conversation on climate change during a heatwave? 

How do we make the link between the latest extreme heat wave to climate change when we have been telling people for years that weather extremes are not to be confused with the long term trends associated with climate change?

For example, in situations such as when a US Senator held up an unseasonal snowball to ‘demonstrate’ there is no global warming, he was rightly reminded of this distinction.

I’ll get back to these questions. I wanted firstly to illustrate the challenge we face in trying to have a conversation with the doggedly unconcerned.

Stuff and Nonsense

I overheard someone in a delicatessen yesterday joking about “hilarious” letters in The Times, writing on how we didn’t need extreme weather warnings back in 1976. 

Can’t we just enjoy it? 

Chuckle, chuckle. 

Bloody nanny state. 

Helloooo … It’s called summer!

What’s the world coming to?

I wanted to ask if she knew that there were 70,000 excess deaths across Europe during the 2003 heatwave, and that just this week fires have been raging across Europe, from Portugal to Croatia, devastating many communities.

I resisted the temptation.  No, I chickened out.

It reminded me of the ‘stuff and nonsense’ sketch French & Saunders did some years back satirising Middle England’s perpetual angst over our alleged nanny state (you know, the one that gave us food banks, Grenfell, and a host of nannyish things). 

The sketch – which I cannot find on YouTube – had two portly conservative stalwarts trying to outdo each other with stories of how much pain they have endured without needing to call a doctor. Shotgun accidentally blew my foot off … ha, ha, ha, no problem!

bloody bed-wetters these days …. 

… stuff and nonsense.

It’s really no different to the ‘Elf ’n’ safety’ campaign Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson and others have pursued over many years in their toxic opinion pieces in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and elsewhere. This is now firmly embedded in the psyche of Middle England and a favourite source of jokes at Conservative Party conferences.

Extreme weather and climate change

Yes, we did have a very hot summer in 1976, but what does that prove? 

Whataboutery only proves that the speaker has no ideas and no grasp of the evidence.

The truth is that as with a progressively loaded dice, the odds keep changing. This is the latest from the MetOffice [1]:

“We found that in just two decades, the probability of seeing those record breaking 2003 temperatures again have become more than 10 times more likely.”

And the chances will keep increasing. Warnings like this are not new. Dr Peter Stott from the Met Office wrote in 2014:

“Updated model projections of future changes suggest that by the end of the century summers as hot as 2003 will be considered unusually cool.”

That is no longer exceptionally hot, but exceptionally cooler than the new normal.

Think about it.

The odds have increased because of our human emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. The odds get worse with every year we continue to emit the stuff.

I don’t think our progeny will be chuckling away in 2100 at anti-woke opinion, just despairing at the obdurate ignorance of those led us to this place.

The language of weather and climate

The British have a very well developed language of weather, which suffuses our every day encounters, our poetry, our paintings and our culture generally.

Surrounded as we are by a warm ocean, a cold pole, a European continent and, from below us, the Mediterranean and Saharan land mass, our weather can seem unpredictable.

We are less articulate when it comes to climate; barely literate.

But we have been told not to confuse weather with climate. Climatologists customarily defined climate change as a trend that could be discerned over a few decades, not a few days. 

This makes it hard to talk about any one particular event – such as the 2003 heatwave – and put it down to climate. This was a godsend to climate change deniers, who like tobacco companies before them would make the defence that this person could have got lung cancer anyway (the increased odds don’t prove that THIS person would not have got it anyway).

Of course the counter reflex of claiming that every extreme event is the result of our human emissions doesn’t convince either; our weather variability doesn’t go away in a warming world, it is just gets superimposed on a rising trend.

So, just as a pinball machine on a tilt will still produce apparently random outcomes, the biases formed by the tilt will increase the odds of some outcomes versus others. The UK is getting warmer, and that has consequences as both ends of the hydrological cycle: be it extreme heatwaves or extreme flooding. 

A new science has come to the rescue in our attempts to unpick the apparent contradictions in talking about short term weather extremes in the context of longer term climate change: extreme weather attribution.

Extreme weather attribution

It is now possible for climate scientists to put a number on a particular event and say how much more likely it was as a result of man-made global heating; 20%, 50%, 3000%, or whatever the physics and historical records together show.

This is actually not so new in its general application, as the quotes from the MetOffice above attest to. General retrospective studies on the raised chance of, say, a hot summer across the UK or Europe, have been published before.

What is relatively new is taking a specific event that may be relatively localised and ascribing odds to it, and doing this within a few days of the event occurring; of extreme weather attributions as a service.

Dr Friederike Otto is one of the pioneers of this science and approach. Her book is an unputdownable account of her journey and the implications of this work: Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change, 2020

Speaking of the floods in Germany in 2021 she said [4]:

“These floods have shown us that even developed countries are not safe from severe impacts of extreme weather that we have seen and known to get worse with climate change,”

In May this year, the World Weather Attribution (WWA) organisation issued [5] its analysis of the extreme / early heat wave in Pakistan/ India in early Spring, which they concluded was 30 times more likely (i.e. 3000% more likely) than it would have been without human caused global heating.

A different conversation

So what do I do next time I’m in a queue and I hear someone chuckling at the latest opinion piece in the papers mocking those concerned at climate change and the latest extreme weather event? I might try a gentle question:

“Can I ask why you think there is nothing to worry about?”

This should flush out enough to respond to with the material I covered earlier. 

It’s real, the impacts can be life threatening, and the trends mean it’s going to get more frequent and more intense. One could continue:

“Why does this have to be part of an on-going culture war?  

Why isn’t this something that should unite us, if not for our own sake, for the sake of our grandchildren?

Surely that is no laughing matter?”

. . . o o O o o . . .

(c) Richard W. Erskine. 17th July 2022.

References and notes

 1. ’New study examines chances of record June temperature’, MetOffice, 29th June 2022, https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2022/climate-change-slashing-odds-of-record-western-european-june-temperatures 

2. ‘Heatwave increases’, MetOffice, 2014, https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/2014/heatwave-increase  

3. ‘Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change’, Friederike Otto, 2020

4. ‘Germany’s deadly floods were up to 9 times more likely because of climate change, study estimates’, Angela Dewan, 24th August 2021, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/23/europe/germany-floods-belgium-climate-change-intl/index.html

5. ‘Climate Change made devastating early heat in India and Pakistan 30 times more likely’, World Weather Attribution (WWA), 23rd May 2022, https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/climate-change-made-devastating-early-heat-in-india-and-pakistan-30-times-more-likely/ 

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My Sceptical Friend

How does one speak about climate change to a friend, colleague or neighbour who is not engaged, and sceptical about the need for urgent action?

I was prompted to write this essay because I have been asked this question three times in the last two weeks, and it got me thinking.

In the local climate group I help run, we focus on positive local action. Unlike many climate groups we do not post dystopian images of the latest horror from the front line of climate impacts. This is not because we deny them but because we have found it is not the best way to engage people who are thinking about getting involved, or are avoiding getting engaged! 

They can find the scary material elsewhere, and our job, as a climate group, is to facilitate and catalyse change, through networks, conversations and projects.

But then there are some people – in every community – who clearly do not feel that urgent action is needed. So can we really avoid dealing with those sceptics?

The sceptics we are talking about here do not fit the stereotype of an ideological ‘denier’ – such as Lord Lawson – but they have often heard or read things that reassure them that action is not urgent (‘those alarmists have gone too far!’, they hear, a reassuring salve). Conservative newspapers actively dismiss the need for urgent action. 

So will facts change a sceptic’s mind?

It is well established that while facts are important, a key reason why people believe in certain things is their culture and values (I recommend reading Katharine Hayhoe on this [1]). 

If one group believes in the freedom of communities to do their own thing, free of central Government ‘interference’, there is then a perceived conflict of values with others who favour the need for regulations to promote change. The challenge is to find the common ground, the shared values.

If someone believes that the planet will work things out, with or without our help, they may be quite fatalistic about society’s ability to change ‘there is nothing we can do’. The challenge then is to show how – assuming we had sufficient agency to cause the problem – we also have the ability to prevent the worst happening.

Most people are neither deniers nor fatalists. They want a positive future for their children and grandchildren. If they can see the need for change, they can become champions for change.

Who are we talking to?

It is very easy, especially for those like me who spend way too much time on Twitter, to frame the engagement challenge in terms of those on the ideological right who have made a career out of climate science denial.  That is a mistake in my view.

Various surveys in the UK, USA and elsewhere indicate a growing number that see the need for change. Some just voted in Australia to end the reign of a right wing, climate change denying party.

The UK Government’s Winter 2021 Attitudes Survey showed that 85% of respondents were either ‘very concerned’ or ‘fairly concerned’ about climate change [2].

(Credit: BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Net Zero and Climate Change Winter 2021)

Even in the USA, where we are constantly reminded of the polarised nature of political debates, we find that on climate change, there is a majority of people who are either ‘Alarmed’ or ‘Concerned’ (in the nomenclature of the Yale Climate Change Communications ‘6 Americas’ [3]). 

As the authors of this report write:

There has been substantial change in the distribution of the Six Americas over the past five years. The Alarmed segment has nearly doubled in size, increasing 15 percentage points (from 18% to 33% of the U.S. adult population), including an increase of 9 percentage points from March 2021 to September 2021. In contrast, over the past 5 years only about 1 in 10 Americans have been Dismissive (decreasing from 11% to 9%). Overall, Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions.

The ‘Dismissives’ are only 9% of the US population, but often appear to be 90% of the commenters on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. That is not a reason for allowing them to frame the conversation in their terms. 

Instead, we increasingly need to get off our computers and have 1:1 convivial conversations in person, over a cup of coffee, at a market stall or over the garden fence, with the majority who are genuinely curious at exploring the issues.

The ‘Why?’ question

Exploring values as opposed to just facts is a crucial part of the conversation. When someone makes a strong, provocative statement, the response should initially aim to explore the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’:

Why do you feel that?

This might well reveal those values or assumptions that are really at the heart of someone’s feelings, and explain the anger or frustration they express. This is almost impossible to do online.

Those sceptical of the need for change are not solely on the right. There are some environmentalists who have a such a strong preference for nature-based solutions, they will find all the downsides of technological solutions, while being blind to any shortcomings of their preferred solutions.

In fact, we all need to ask ourselves the ‘Why?’ question from time to time, to question our beliefs, biases and assumptions.

A little bit of knowledge can be a useful thing

People new to climate change can be overwhelmed by its sheer complexity, and think they must have encyclopaedic knowledge to engage with people, especially sceptics; they don’t!

It does help to know some key concepts, which can be used to help guide responses to questions. A few are summarised here:

  • Civilisation and agriculture have blossomed since the end of the last ice age with a stable atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at 300 parts per million (ppm). In just a short period since the start of the industrial revolution, human emissions have pushed it to over 400 ppm [4]
  • There are many carbon cycles that cover vastly different timescales. Despite large flows of carbon into and out of the oceans, the flows balance each other; maintaining a stable concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Humans are now upsetting that balance at alarming speed [5]
  • Carbon dioxide is called a ‘long-lived greenhouse gas’. The raised concentration in the atmosphere (caused by burning fossil fuels) remains raised for a very long time [6]
  • The rise in global mean surface temperatures of about 1.2°C since the start of the industrial revolution is already having impacts, and every 0.1°C of rise on top of that will increase the impacts [7].
  • All societal and personal choices have a carbon impact of some sort, but it is important to understand the full impact of any choice, over the full life-cycle of a thing or activity. We should not let a lack of perfect solutions stop us taking action [8].

How to engage with the Concerned or Cautious?

There are many different styles of engagement. This is my personal perspective, but everyone can develop their own style.

There can be a tendency to try to argue facts with people, but this can be difficult. If the challenge is based on some bad reading of a topic, and is not something you feel qualified to respond to, is that the end of the conversation? I would argue that with a questioning approach, a fruitful conversation is still possible.

Questionable challenges come in a variety of categories. Here are a few key ones: 

  • Simply fallacies of argument that require no knowledge of the facts per se.
  • ‘What about?’ type challenges that are aimed at deflecting from a core issue.
  • Misunderstandings in the nature of a system, that often ignore important aspects of the system.

These can cover quite a wide range of what one might hear at a climate stall or over a coffee with friends. Often they are combined in different ways, but usually one of these plays a central role.

Simple fallacies of argument

There are many resources that deal with critical thinking and fallacies of argument. The Greeks were familiar with many of them, and they are still used in debates. Debates and conversations on climate change are not immune to fallacies of argument.

Here is one example:

‘By far the greatest use of peat in the world is burning it for fuel, so isn’t stopping its use in our gardens really just virtue signalling?’

In such cases, you don’t need to google the actual numbers because this is a simple logical fallacy and the best way to deal with it is to substitute another example that exposes its flaws:

‘If it was true that the greatest number of wife abusers in the world is in <another country>, would it be ok to say that calling for a stop to wife beating in the UK is really just virtue signalling?’

That is obviously nonsense, but then so is the argument against stopping using peat in gardening.

There are are countless examples of the use of fallacies of argument. One advocate from a think tank that denied the need for action on climate change made a statement on TV along these lines:

‘I am not a climate denier, but this latest scientific report is saying we must reach net zero by 2050, which seems to be ludicrously exact in its timing, doesn’t it?’

This is what might be termed the Fallacy of Precision. My response would be through a progressive sequence of questions:

‘You do accept that warming will increase with more emissions?’ (if not, that reveals climate science denial)

‘You do accept that more warming will cause more extreme weather events and therefore more impacts?’ (if not, that reveals climate science denial)

‘So you accept that the sooner we make cuts the greater our ability to reduce harms?’ (if not, that reveals they don’t understand that prevention is always better than cure)

So in response to this example of the Fallacy of Precision, the key argument is:

‘It is ok to get there early; I’m happy with 2050 +/- 5 years! It is not about binaries. The longer we delay, the greater the risks. 2050 is a political planning goal, and to declare it is not saying there are no risks before that date, and catastrophe after it. The impacts are already being felt, and will increase with more emissions.’

What about?

Whataboutery is as old as the hills.

A very common one I encounter is:

‘What about China? The UK has a tiny footprint by comparison’

My personal favourite immediate response is the take the iPhone out of my pocket and ask:

‘Where do you think this was manufactured?’ (they normally guess right, yes, China)

then follow up with

‘So how do we account for the associated carbon?’ 

They realise that they have to concede that it isn’t quite so simple as blaming China, but the comeback is often:

‘Yes, but population growth is a big issue isn’t it?’

I respond that I acknowledge the issue of resource depletion, but in the context of climate change, I am concerned with the idea that we should place the blame for our situation on the poorest in the world. Africa has been responsible for just 3% of emissions, yet will be hit very badly by climate change; worse than us. At this point I often get out a pen and paper and ask if they are familiar with the Oxfam Extreme Carbon Inequality report? Most are not, so I sketch out the key figure based on the report [9]

Hand sketch by Richard Erskine, based on Oxfam ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality’ report.

‘This shows that the richest 10% of the world’s population have been responsible for 50% of carbon emissions, yet the poorest 50% have only been responsible for 10% of emissions.’

This is a great conversation starter, because it can lead in many directions:

  • historic emissions;
  • funding for adaptation;
  • per capita versus national emissions;
  • resource depletion;
  • educating girls;
  • low carbon development for poorer countries;
  • climate justice; 
  • and much more.

This is an area that is not awash with easy solutions, but it is a chance to challenge simplistic claims that population growth is the cause of the climate crisis, when in fact, consumption growth (propelled by fossil fuelled energy) is demonstrably the primary cause.

Misunderstandings in the nature of a system

Here is one example of a claim I heard recently:

‘Blue Whales eat krill and poo 3 tonnes  a day, so if we got them back to the levels in the oceans before humans decimated their numbers, we could draw down most of the carbon we emit. Problem solved’

The person involved was a huge fan of what are called ‘natural solutions’, and that is fine, as long it isn’t used to dismiss other valid solutions (which was his intention, based on other remarks he made dismissing Wind Turbines etc.).

This illustrates the immediate difficulty for someone at a climate stall in a market who is no expert on carbon cycles, whales or even the total carbon emissions emitted by humanity. But interestingly, despite those apparent shortcomings, it is possible to challenge such a claim …

… by using questions back at the questioner, using the ‘little knowledge’ I shared earlier.

It is crucial that the response is not merely a counter statement. Always start with questions. Ones like:

‘I’d be interested to read more on this idea, do you have a good source?’ (if it is simply a second hand belief that has not been properly researched, they may stumble a bit here)

‘How long would it take to build up the Blue Whale population, and would it be in time to avert dangerous global warming?’ (this may elicit a response like ‘maybe 50 years’, and the follow up might be ‘do we have 50 years?’)

‘That’s interesting, but can you explain why the atmosphere has been so stable since the last ice age, even before we started decimating the whale population?’ (this is of course a trick question, but a valid one. The whales’ contribution to carbon cycles was there 5,000 years ago, yet the carbon dioxide levels didn’t drop because of it; it was in balance)

This could lead to a co-discovery of some more information. Maybe a bit more reading on carbon cycles and so on. Maybe the conclusion will be that we need the whales back, but they won’t get us out of our current predicament.

Conclusion

These are just examples of actual encounters, but I hope they give a flavour of the approach I like to take.

Those new to climate change who want to engage friends, neighbours and others should not feel intimidated. Responding to someone who expresses certainty with questions is always a reasonable approach, that everyone can learn from. If you are part of a fledgling community climate group, you can develop your confidence by working with others when running a climate stall. Learn from others who are more experienced, and then start to have a go yourself. Practice makes better (don’t be beguiled by the illusion of perfect!).

Remember, the great majority of people out there are on your side, and even those that are not, manage to be polite when face to face, in person.

And try to reduce your time on Twitter. Yes, that’s you I’m talking to Richard!

© Richard W. Erskine, 2022

Notes

  1. Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us – A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, Simon & Schuster, 2021.
  1. BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Net Zero and Climate Change Winter 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1064031/BEIS_PAT_Winter_2021_Net_Zero_and_Climate_Change.pdf 
  1. Yale Climate Change Communications ‘6 Americas’, https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/global-warmings-six-americas-september-2021/
  1. Since the end of the last ice age, the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide was stable at just under 300 parts per million (ppm), but since the industrial revolution it has risen to over 400 ppm; higher than at any time in the last 3 million years. The nearly 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age have been relatively stable, and civilisation and agriculture have blossomed in this period.
  1. Carbon cycles are just that. There are short-term cycles (like the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn and spring cycle, leading to flows of carbon into and out of the atmosphere) but also longer term ones. The longest are geological in timescale. The oceans store huge amounts of carbon in their depths, but there are chemical, physical and biological processes that mean carbon flows into and out of the atmosphere. The reason for the stability of the pre-industrial concentration in the atmosphere is precisely because a combination of these cycles has created a balance. The balance can be disrupted and changed over long periods. The current disruption is extremely fast and man-made.
  1. Carbon dioxide is called a ‘long-lived greenhouse gas’. When humans emit an amount of it into the atmosphere about half is absorbed in the oceans and biosphere, about half remains in the atmosphere, and because the the balancing cycles (and despite the fact that individual molecules may move back and forth on quite short timescales), the raised concentration in the atmosphere remains raised for a very long time.
  1. I’ve answered the question ‘Is 2°C a Big Deal?’ in another essay: https://essaysconcerning.com/2021/10/14/is-2c-a-big-deal/. According the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a rise in global mean surface temperatures is already having impacts and every additional 0.1°C of rise has consequences, so it is now urgent to try to avoid 1.5°C and at least 2°C. They found that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C was huge, in terms of impacts; and the risks escalate if we go above 2°C. All policies and actions need to be judged on whether they fit into the narrowing window of time.
  1. All societal and personal choices have a carbon impact of some sort, but it is important to understand the full impact of any choice, over the full life-cycle of a thing or activity. One considers how bad one thing is, it has to be considered alongside the alternatives. We all have to live, to breath, travel to work or play, etc. and so we have to consider a ‘balance of harms’ and also, a ‘balance of benefits’.
  1. Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam, 2015 https://www.oxfam.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en-UPDATED.pdf 

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How hard will it be to scale up heat pump capacity in the UK?

I want to challenge the assumption that scaling up heat pump capacity in the UK is very hard. 

In many ways this belief is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the approach to skills we have had in the UK for far too long. Maybe the crisis in energy – and particularly gas – now confronting us is the jolt we needed to do a rethink.

Scaling is only hard if we still frame the challenge in the same ways we do today – in terms of number of certificates gained through further education colleges. This is not the answer. 

We need something far more like the apprenticeships of old – not those where all the money pours into the colleges, but one where the firms who are doing the real competency development through practice get a decent share of the funding.

Another implicit assumption that needs challenging, is that we need to create clones of experts with very deep heat pump expertise. I don’t think that is true (except maybe in very hard or non-standard outlier cases). In all technologies, as they mature, there is an element of de-skilling that takes place. 

An example is software, where modern tools alleviate a lot of the skills hitherto required in, for example, creating a web site. Although this can reframe the skills question, and quite different design skills can emerge (e.g. illustrators rather than coders).

Heat pumps have matured to the point where we are near to this point (but they still have some work to do to simplify their manuals further).

Finally, we need to scale up the number of heat pump SMEs (Small and Medium sized Enterprises). A massive strategic blunder would be to see the challenge as retraining 100,000 existing one-man-band boiler fitters/ plumbers, to turn them into 100,000 one-man-band heat pump fitters/ plumbers.

A new SME-led approach would put the emphasis on competency development and rebalancing the training budget, with more of the funding going towards the SMEs who can grow the right skills, and do this organically.

We may still need training colleges, but we have to accept that the current model is broken and it is not fit for purpose, and certainly not for our current emergency; their role needs to be radically transformed.

If a heat pump project is broken down into its distinct roles and competencies, the challenge becomes much easier. 

In what follows, I am assuming an air-source heat pump (ASHP) and a ‘wet’ heat distribution system (pipes and wall-mounted radiators), as this will apply for the overwhelming majority of homes that need to transition from gas boilers (to be ‘retrofitted’).

Meet the total UK team that would be needed to install 1,000,000 heat pumps a year by 2030 [1]:

  • 9,000 electricians with expertise in configuring heat pumps.
  • 4,500 assessors/ designers to assess a property, carry out heat loss calculations, and size and design the whole system (heat pump, hot water tank and radiators). This is the most critical role to ensure the overall system design performs to the efficiency expected.
  • 45,000 plumbers required to follow the designs given to them, but not to understand heat pumps in any depth.

Britain with the help of its allies trained 100,000+ pilots in WW2 in just a few  years, and many more women and men building the planes. They didn’t do that by sitting them in classrooms, trying to get them to understand aerodynamics! They got plonked into two seaters and were soon taking the controls.

We need to be honest about the malfunctioning monetised approach to technical training in the UK (actually, most ‘higher education’), and instead focus on practical skills, competency development, and real world practice / achievements. I recommend a great discussion on the issue of ‘resources not courses’ [2]. 

I asked a plumber who was part of the team that installed the heat pump in my house about his college training. He told me “I didn’t get much out of it. I only really learned what I was doing when I left college and started work, and it took a few years to gain my confidence”.

The individual tasks involved in assessing, designing, installing and commissioning a ‘heat pump system’ can be broken down and assigned to roles with the right skills.  I have outlined the project in the notes [3].

The interesting observation is that the plumber is the role which puts in the most hours on the project (to do traditional things like bending copper pipes), but requires the least level of knowledge on heat pumps. They just need to follow the design handed to them. So scaling capacity, if targeted effectively, can be very effective. I have included a skills table in the notes.

The assessor/ designer who was on the team that installed the heat pump in my house – let’s call her Chloe – was a physics graduate in her late 20s. She made easy work of the assessment, calculations and design, and putting together the proposal for the overall solution.

In 10 years, would it really be so hard to scale an SME-led model, including cross-trained electricians and plumbers, and developing a new career path for ‘heat pump assessor/ designers’ like Chloe?

Let’s not talk ourselves into defeat.

We just need to get smart, and organised, and fund the right things.

© Richard W. Erskine, 2022

NOTES

[1] Estimate of roles required for a typical dwelling


Average man-days
per house
Workforce required for 1,000,000 installation per year,
assuming 230 working days a year
Assessor/ designer14,348
Plumber1043,478
Electrician/ configurer28,696

Note that 10 man-days per house, would typically mean 2 plumbers for 5 days.

[2] Resources not courses

There are deep issues with teaching and training in the UK. The marketisation of education and training means that further education colleges are paid for accrediting students, not developing true competencies. There is a great discussion on this in relation to heat pumps at the BetaTalk – The Renewable Energy and Low Carbon Heating Podcast in the episode The Training Fiasco in Plumbing & Heating – I am certainly not claiming there is an easy way of fixing the training issues in the UK. I am simply saying we can reframe the problem through better organisations and coordination of the roles and skills.

[3] Project outline

  1. Assessment of the heat loss of the house in its given state of fabric, in order to ensure that the heat pump can deliver the peak load required, during the depths of winter. This must be done room by room to ensure correctly sized radiators in every room. Other aspects to be assessed are the existing pipework, radiators, power supply and water pressure.
  1. Design of the whole system, including the air-source heat pump (ASHP), and requirements for hot water, and radiator heat distribution. Any upgrades of radiators will be part of the design, as well as decisions on the peak flow temperature required.
  1. Installation includes several tasks. Physical installation of the ASHP and associated kit (control system, buffer tanks, etc.). Connection to the electricity supply. Connecting the heat pump sub-system to the existing pipework, and upgrading any radiators as per the design. Then ‘balancing radiators’ to ensure optimal heat distribution.
  1. Commissioning involves configuration of the controls (including ‘weather compensation’) to maximise the efficiency of the heat pump during all weathers, and enabling effective energy monitoring so that the customer can see how well the system performs over days, months and years; and finally, ensuring all the paperwork is completed with certification authorities such as MCS (Microgeneration Certification Scheme).

Each hands-on role can be addressed differently in terms of scaling capacity. We will need:

  • An assessor/ designer, who can also play the role of designer, and needs a high level of knowledge of the overall system aspects.
  • A plumber who will do pipework and deal with physical kit installation, but requires only limited knowledge of heat pumps.
  • An electrician/ configurer with high skills in the specific heat pumps installed, and their controls.

Other roles not directly involved are management, accounts, supply chain/ store manager, sales & marketing, and these are important as in any similar business, but don’t ‘scale’ anywhere near as fast as the hands-on roles.

Here is how the the hands-on roles match the stages in the project:


Assessor/ DesignerPlumberElectrician/ Configurer
Assessment

Design

Installation
Commissioning

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Fracking noises off

In the face of turmoil in the gas markets, it’s not surprising that multiple articles and opinion pieces have been pouring forth on fracking for gas in the UK – and calling for a delay to the transition to low carbon – from the same nexus of right-wingers (GWPF, etc.) who have spent years denying global warming, and deny the impacts are anything to worry about (despite the latest stark warnings from the IPCC summarised by Carbon Brief)

Not happy with denying the causes and impacts, of man-made global warming, the next stop for these bad-faith actors has been to deny the solutions. Hence the stream of nonsense attacks on EVs and Heat Pumps recycled year after year, and month after month, with increasingly shrill voices as the adoption of these solutions begins to demonstrate traction. 

Market forces guys, you should love that!

No, they will never let the science – which shows the overwhelming logic of electrification of end-use technologies – get in the way of their ideologically based opinions.

It is of course a long-running multifaceted campaign by right-wing ‘think tanks’, such as GWPF in UK and Heartland Institute in the USA, that have hitherto been successful in slowing action on climate change. Now the tide has turned in recent years, and they know that public opinion is not on their side, but that won’t stop them finding opportunities to muddy the waters.

And we are in the midst of just such an opportunity, and you can imagine them thinking:

I know! Let’s exploit the Ukrainian tragedy and crisis in gas markets – and anxieties in UK society – to double down on anti-renewables, and demand more pro-fossil fuel exploration; especially fracking. 

So their latest stunt is to coordinate articles in the Telegraph etc. and a letter from the usual suspects in parliament; some affiliated or cosying up to those very same denialist right wing ‘think tanks’.  

For those of us that are genuinely concerned about UK energy security and resilience, and a greener future that will make us more resilient in every way – food security, conserving nature, and much more – the question is: what to do?

Keep calm and carry on is my main message.

The path to net zero will continue to be bumpy. Getting off our addiction to  fossil fuels has withdrawal symptoms. A serious fight back and disinformation war from vested interests was inevitable. They see action on climate change as a threat to their illusory vision of an unfettered ‘free market’; so regulations to address harms to the environment, nature and human health are an anathema to them. Hence Trump’s attempts to eviscerate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The good news is that only a dwindling segment of the population are ‘dismissives’ (to use the nomenclature of the Six Americas), making up just 9% of US population. 

Similarly in UK, there is a majority who want action on climate change.  The latest UK Public Attitudes Tracker (BEIS, Autumn 2021), shows that 85% of the UK adults were concerned about climate change, and 87% supported renewables. Whereas only 17% supported fracking.

It’s not just the public who are sceptical about fracking, energy experts question the potential role that fracking could play in the medium term to address soaring energy prices

You can understand why the likes of Steve Baker MP, Matt Ridley, et al are becoming increasingly desperate and alarmist. Expect more heat, and even less light, from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, GWPF, etc., and their various enablers in the media.

Give the noises off a rest guys, it ain’t working.

© Richard W. Erskine, 2022

REFERENCES

In-depth Q&A: The IPCC’s sixth assessment on how climate change impacts the world, Carbon Brief, 28th February 2022, https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-qa-the-ipccs-sixth-assessment-on-how-climate-change-impacts-the-world

Why fracking is not the answer to soaring UK gas prices, Professor Michael Bradshaw and co-authors, The Conversation, 2nd March 2022 https://theconversation.com/why-fracking-is-not-the-answer-to-soaring-uk-gas-prices-177957 

BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Autumn 2021 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/beis-public-attitudes-tracker-autumn-2021 

Global Warming’s Six Americas, Yale Program on Climate Communications, September 2021 https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/about/projects/global-warmings-six-americas/ 

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Is Putin mad?

It seems bizarre that the fate of the world might hinge on this question, on the psychological state of one man, but this is where we are.

We are told that a NATO secured ‘no fly’ zone over Ukraine is not possible, because it might trigger World War III, and ultimately Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with an exchange of strategic nuclear weapons.

We know that nuclear weapons do not prevent terrorism, civil wars or conventional ones, and ‘great power’ proxy wars have been a scourge on the world since 1945.

Near misses between nuclear powers have been far more frequent than many realise. As Sasan Aglani states:

“A recent Chatham House report documents 13 instances between 1962 and 2002 where nuclear weapons were almost inadvertently used due to miscalculation, miscommunication, or technical errors. What prevented their use on many of these occasions was the ‘human judgement factor’ – intervention of individuals who, based on prudent assessment of situations and against protocol, either refused to authorise a nuclear strike or relay information that would likely have led to the use of nuclear weapons.”

And in the latest moment of high risk, NATO’s nuclear weapons haven’t restrained Putin; far from it.

In a sense, they have enabled him.

Nuclear deterrence is usually described in the simplistic terms parroted by politicians, and as the UK’s Ministry of Defence describes:

“Potential aggressors know that the costs of attacking the UK, or our NATO allies, could far outweigh any benefit the could hope to achieve”.

But this was the obsolete MAD strategy of the 1950s, not the more complex picture that emerged from the 1960s onwards: flexible response.

Both US and Russian military strategists were unhappy with a nuclear force that was literally incredible. They needed some way to make MAD credible, that is, to make nuclear weapons usable.

The answer was a ladder of response: the threat of battlefield nuclear weapons would cause an opposing large conventional force to think again. If that failed to deter, then medium range nuclear weapons would do the trick. The ultimate ‘deterrent’ would be strategic intercontinental multiple warhead missiles.

But this is the kind of theoretical scheme dreamt up by wonks in think tanks. It can be tested in war games but not in practice, and certainly not with Putin in the room, playing the game. 

It takes no account of accidents, miscalculation or, dare I say, one mad man who refuses to act logically.

If Putin ordered a battlefield nuclear weapon attack on a Ukrainian city that refused to submit, what would NATO do then? 

Would Putin go this far, risking that “it might trigger World War III”?

He seems to like taking risks, crossing red lines and getting away with it.

Each time, the world tutted, and looked away, even though the plan was already pretty clear. His intentions towards Ukraine have hardly been a secret. He has given many speeches on the state of the west (which have enamered him to the religious far right in the west), and the need to rebuild a greater Russia.

He clearly wants to undermine western democracies and any countries in Russia’s orbit aspiring to join them.

Putin has always been testing, probing, and seeing what lines can be crossed. 

Is Putin mad?

The problem for the west is that he only needs to appear to be mad to get away with it, and so far he’s doing a pretty good job at that.

We must hope against hope for China to restrain him, for a palace revolt, or anything to restrain his worst impulses.

And when we are through this, in however many years it takes, we must finally stop this irrational belief that nuclear weapons make us secure, and make us safer.

Post-Putin, the world will have been warned again of its folly in trusting in these genocidal weapons.

We must all work towards their total eradication.

Richard W. Erskine, 2nd March 2022.

A little background …

During the 1980s I was research co-ordinator for SANA (Scientists Against Nuclear Arms) and on their National Coordinating Committee. It became SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility) and remains very active, with many great reports and research on nuclear weapons, non-military research careers, climate change, and much more. SGR’s work on nuclear weapons contributed to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), who went on to win the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Please visit SGR’s website and donate towards their important work. 

This essay is a personal piece with a personal viewpoint, as I am just an ordinary member of SGR these days, but I continue to support their great work.

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Musings from the loft clearance: nuclear weapons, climate change, and denial

Clearing out over 40 years of files can throw up so many surprises and emotions. This box contained files from the 1980s when I was in my spare time research coordinator for SANA (Scientists Against Nuclear Arms).

One file, preparatory work we did for a local authority preparing a report on the likely impacts of a nuclear attack (countering the whitewashing ‘Protect and Survive’ from the UK’s Home Office). I wrote a program that ran on an Amstrad 8256 to do the maths on casualties.

We helped several local authorities to speak truth to the powers that were telling people to whitewash their windows! The group became a kind of research group for the peace movement, often working quietly from bedrooms and offices, trying to make a difference.

Meanwhile those in the front line – those brilliant Greenham Women – faced the reaction of those who turned fear into hate, stirred by the same media outlets who today pour scorn on those demanding action.

Where is the statue to those brave ladies I muse, as I flick through another file full of newspaper cuttings?

Another file on readings of psychological responses to the nuclear threat, which I summarised on a one pager. Some of the insights seem universal. Denial is a complex condition, and I always cringe when those in denial on climate change feel they are being linked to holocaust denial.

The truth is that most of us are in denial much of the time, because we’d go crazy otherwise. But there are consequences to this.

In my life I stepped back from active work on the nuclear issue to focus on family and career. Burnt out you might say, and needing a break.

Only in my retirement did I wake up to climate change, after reading Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’, and then hearing her speak in Cheltenham. That was quite the kick up the proverbial!

The nuclear threat has not gone away and Russia is now escalating the risks. C.E. Osgood said

“the policy of mutual deterrence includes no provision for its own resolution”.

The risks are pretty binary.

Climate change is different despite some who suggest otherwise (its scales of damage, creeping past us and towards us), but the psychology has common threads.


People ask why decent cultured Germans did not stop the Nazis. Their denial was much more relevant to our current situation than the denial of neo-nazis regarding the holocaust, or the denial of dangerous man-made global warming by the self-appointed ‘contrarians’ who control the right wing media.

It is not that people are intellectually ‘in denial’, any more than a smoker who knows very well the health risks. It is the emotionally centred denial that puts off action.

People are worried about climate change and want action taken – overwhelmingly they do, as studies clearly show – but they have been unable to get beyond that numbing inability to turn wishes into actions. It all seems too much.

As Sandman and Valenti said in relation to the nuclear threat: People are neither apathetic nor actively terrified, but they are psychologically numbed.

The “don’t make a fuss” narrative is alive and well, and soon to be brought into law by our Home Secretary Priti Patel.

But those who did and do make a fuss – The suffragettes, Greenham Women and XR – had the same energy, the same moral outrage which we too often keep bottled up. It hasn’t escaped my notice that it is often women who are the first to step forward, to speak up.

Being polite and “reasonable” can do a lot but rarely is enough to shift powerful forces using propaganda to manipulate public sentiment (to aid in the process of mass denial).

The great psychologist Dorothy Rowe said, in relation to Bomb that we need to convert anger & depression into hope and action. Protest is never enough.

E.L. Long wrote in 1950 in relation to nuclear threat

“scientists had overestimated … power of their message to reform a culture that has ignored other seers and prophets for many ages”.

Only positive visions and futures can change the psychology of mass denial on climate change. Nuclear threats are oddly more intractable, but ought to be simpler, to resolve.

On climate change I veer between despair and optimism, but as many wise heads have said, hope is important, but much easier to sustain if coupled with action: engaging with the community, local counsellors, national politicians, businesses and the rest.

As Katharine Hayhoe replies when asked “what is the first thing I should do about climate change?”

“talk about it!”

with family, friends, colleagues.

Those forces who want to delay action, are happy to have a psychologically numbed populace. Talk and engagement is a great antedote. Telling your counsellors and parliamentary candidates that your vote depends on them demonstrating they really mean action, is another. We all have agency in some or many forms.

Now, I must get back to clearing more of those boxes and piles of papers, no doubt uncovering more memories, triggering more musings.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2022

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The Catch-22 of COVID-19

Many MPs have tonight voted against measures to protect public health. 

A majority of these did so in the name of freedom, in denial that the fast spreading Omicron variant of Covid-19 is any worse than seasonal flu. Freedom trumps all, according to these ‘contrarians’. The market is king, and the market solves all problems, so the main job of Government is to enable business to do its thing.

As is well documented, ‘doubt is our product’ is the motto that tobacco executives secretly adopted in the face of the unequivocal risk from smoking revealed by scientists, and is now the reflex modus operandi of the anti-science contrarians working assiduously to undermine experts.

It is always the same people. Whether it be smoking causing lung cancer, CFCs causing a hole in the ozone layer, action on climate change, or health measures during a pandemic, those anti-science contrarians will be voting against any regulations to protect people. 

Of course the Catch-22 for those working on actions to avoid the worst, is that for the contrarians, they will use any such success as evidence that the worst projections were an exaggeration in the first place!

You fixed the roof – so all those dire warnings of an impending leak in the roof if it wasn’t retiled were just scare-mongering.

You banned CFCs, and the ozone layer is repairing – as we said there would be no dangerous levels of UV radiation.

You fix some dodgy code (the Millennium or Y2K bug) so the programs would still work after the year 2000 – You see, it was not a problem after all.

You enacted measures to reduce human contact during a pandemic – We told you, the NHS would not be brought to its knees.

You set out actions needed to avoid dangerous man-made climate change – You doomers, the dangers are exaggerated and we should wait to see who is right.

To prove the point, the public officials and experts would have to not act, to let things rip, so that disaster then strikes, and they can then say ‘told you so!’ – but of course they do act.

But the contrarians rarely totally prevent action being taken – even with the worst Governments – but they can effectively delay it.  They are good at that.

Many deaths that could have been avoided result from these delays. There is no freedom for them or their bereaved families.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 14th December 2021

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Insulate Britain! Yes, but by how much?

Upated 14th April 2022 including ‘Summary’ and new section ‘Cost-effectiveness of fabric/ renovation measures to deal with peak heat demand’

Summary:

  • Consider all retrofit options
    • insulation [both simple (loft) and deeper (e.g. external wall)], draught-proofing, moisture management, and last but not least, a heat pump.
    • a householder will in most cases need to make choices: don’t let the good be the enemy of the bad
    • two identical homes may come to different decisions – there is no single ‘right’ answer
    • ignore anyone who says “you need deep retrofit before considering a heat pump” (the essay includes fully referenced debunking of this assertion, but it is widely believed and repeated ad nauseum)
  • Be clear about your priorities (comfort, costs, climate)
    • comfort is important, but it is subjective. MCS (Microgeneration Certification Scheme) has standards for target temperature in homes (21°C in living spaces, 18°C for halls and bedrooms). The term ‘comfort’ does not necessarily justify exceeding this standard.
    • capital costs and running costs both need to be considered – fluid and escalating gas prices are a major issue, whereas electricity can come from many sources (wind, solar, nuclear, tidal, etc.), so is future proofed.
    • if climate is your priority, be aware that timing is key, and the UK and other countries need to decarbonise heating, transport, etc. by 2050
    • in terms of domestic heating, getting off gas is the single best thing you can do, and because heat pumps are so efficient, heat pumps deliver the greatest carbon savings per capital investment by a very large margin of all retrofit measures, without necessarily an increase in running costs!
  • Maybe don’t rip out a NEW kitchen or NEW gas boiler
    • so if you spent £20,000 on a new kitchen 5 years ago, and are now told that the back wall needs insulating, and can’t be done externally for various reasons, maybe this option is not in play.
    • if you have a new gas boiler, check it is operating at optimal efficiency (that it is condensing and is running at lowest possible flow temperature to meet heat demand), thus reducing bills while maintaining comfort; and maybe deferring decision to switch to a heat pump. The Heating Hub offer ideas and support on optimising existing gas boilers, along with many other topics.
  • Decide on budgets/timescales
    • even with grants, household expenditure may be highly constrained
    • consider the disruption as well as costs of different measures, and a realistic plan
    • fabric measures can take several (or many) years to complete (when living with the work).
    • decide on maximum budget and timescale for all measures
  • Do as much fabric as budget allows
    • be aware that deep (fabric) retrofit could exceed cost of heat pump by factor of 3 ot 4
    • prioritise the “must do” ‘bangs for bucks’ measures such as draught proofing and loft insulation that are relatively cheap and with very high payback
    • going deeper is where the householder must make a balanced (dare I say “pragmatic”) decision.
  • Leave some money in budget for an air-source heat pump (ASHP), if you want one
    • ignore myths like “heat pumps can’t heat old buildings” or “they don’t work when its cold” (see here)
    • since an ASHP is much more affordable than alternatives (ground or water), it will be the default heat pump option (for those that are not in flats that may alternatively be connected to a district heating system, which itself can be ‘powered’ using a commercial-scale water-source heat pump).
    • if you are not planning ‘deep retrofit’ there are limited risks from modest ‘oversizing’ of an ASHP if installed before all insulation measures are complete (as a modern ASHP can already handle seasonal variations in demand); but discuss with expert installer.
    • you can get an ASHP early in your retrofit journey, if climate is your priority (and increasingly, running costs also); with no regrets!

Longer read:

If you are confused about what to do about retrofit, you are probably not alone. There is so much mixed and conflicting messaging. Often statements are made in the media that are untrue and go unchallenged.

Some experts say we need to insulate our homes so well they will hardly need any heating! Others say we need to get off gas as fast as possible by installing heat pumps.

Who is right?

Part of the confusion is that commentators can have different objectives in mind when expressing their opinions:

  • To reduce household bills;
  • To improve comfort;
  • To reduce reliance on gas;
  • To lower risks to future bills, from volatile gas markets;
  • To reduce the carbon footprint of heating.

Or some combination of these. But these assumptions are often not made clear, and homeowners can be led down different paths depending on who they talk to.

Now, in the face of the climate emergency, everyone is saying that the last of these is something they care deeply about, but the pathway to getting to net zero in heating is something that is hotly debated.

We don’t have much time to get this right, and as Voltaire once noted, the best should not be the enemy of the good. We need a pragmatic way forward.

Energy Performance Certificates

Householders will often be further confused when they look at the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) of their home or one they want to buy. EPCs are increasingly seen as unfit for purpose in the effort to decarbonise heating. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) stated (as quoted in an Historic England report from 2018).:

“The EPC confounds cost-effectiveness, energy efficiency and environmental performance, giving an inadequate estimate of all three. … it must focus solely on one of .. [to] be an effective baseline for policy interventions”

An EPC in its current form has never recommended a heat pump as a primary measure, because of in-built biases against heat pumps. If we really want to encourage ‘whole house’ retrofit that includes a sufficiency of insulation work and displacing gas (or oil or LPG) boilers with heat pumps, we will need instruments that are fit for purpose (see Updates A.)

So what to do?

Householders will naturally ask: How much will it cost? How fast can it be done? Who can I get to advise me? What is the carbon reduction? Who can do the work to a good standard?

Is ‘deep retrofit’ required?

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in their 6th Carbon Budget stated (based on very detailed modelling of scenarios, costs and risks):

‘By 2030 37% of public and commercial heat demand is met by low-carbon sources. Of this low-carbon heat demand 65% is met by heat pumps, 32% district heating and 3% biomass. By 2050 all heat demand is met by low-carbon sources of which 52% is heat pumps, 42% is district heat, 5% is hydrogen boilers and around 1% is new direct electric heating.’

for their ‘balanced pathway’, and they did not assume deep levels of retrofit (p.113):

‘Energy efficiency and behavioural measures in our Balanced Pathway deliver a 12% reduction in heat demand to 2050’,

which implies quite modest fabric retrofit. This, on average, requires an estimated budget (see p. 297) of just £10,000 per household. This is far below what is the estimated ‘deep retrofit’ budget of nearly £40,000 [1].

The CCC are clearly working on the basis of pragmatic or sufficient levels of insulation and other fabric measures, not ‘deep’ retrofit.

The Retrofit Academy is devoted to training to improve the quality of assessments and implementation of ‘fabric’ measures (insulation, air quality, etc.), which is to be applauded. It is however concerning that they essentially marginalise heat pumps [2]:

“Deep extensive retrofit and fabric first approach needs to be the main focus of reducing carbon emissions before we will be able to move to low carbon heating technologies 100%”.

There is clearly a problem here, as this is not an isolated opinion.

The ‘retrofit community’ generally have established an article of faith that ‘deep retrofit’ is essential. This is a belief that has very deep roots and predates concerns about the climate emergency. Key organisations in the public and private sector promote this belief.

Their motivation is to create greater comfort in homes and to lower heating bills, and who can argue with this?

The problem is that it isn’t a realistic strategy for reaching net zero in the fastest time possible [3].

The benefits in financial terms for householders do not favour a deep retrofit approach [4], but suggests that buyers do value heat pumps [5].

The Retrofit Academy justify their position on heat pumps based on the belief that that the grid cannot cope.

This is the same kind of argument that is often used for why we can’t adopt Electric Vehicles (EVs): because there aren’t enough charging points. On that basis we’d never have replaced horse-drawn carriages with petrol cars, or indeed any technology that displaces an old technology. In all such cases, the infrastructure is developed in parallel with the adoption of the technology in use. You don’t wait till you have a fully developed charging network and beefed-up electricity grid (particularly at its periphery) before you start selling EVs.

The electrification of much of our energy use is an inevitable strategic transformation of the energy system for many reasons, not least of which is the end-use efficiency improvements that technologies like EVs and heat pumps deliver. The other strategic game changer is that the end-use of energy does not care where the electricity comes from: a wind farm in the North Sea; the solar PV on a householder’s roof; a community solar scheme; a nuclear power station; or even, fusion energy (if it ever becomes a commercial reality). Electrification completely future proofs our energy system (even those parts of the economy like Aviation that need ‘chemistry’ to decarbonise, can get synthetic fuels from renewable electricity).

As for the grid, the issue has been overstated. There will be some strengthening of the grid required but a whole host of measures mitigate peaks in demand, including energy storage (at multiple scales), demand shifting, smart metering, etc. These will ensure that the grid can readily cope with future demand. No one is expecting that we have a 100% switch to heat pumps overnight, any more than petrol cars replaced horse-drawn carriages overnight. It is a multi-track transformation of energy generation, distribution and use. Local generation can have a remearkable impact on the scaling up of renewables as discussed here.

A Net Zero Toolkit for Retrofit

Retrofit assessors need to take an holistic and pragmatic view of the problem of decarbonising heating.

The ‘Net Zero Toolkit’ [1] is an encouraging document because it takes an approach which is very much along these lines. This document reiterates what PAS2035 is trying to achieve:

PAS 2035 follows two core principles:

  • A ‘fabric first’ approach to reduce the heat demand of a building as much as possible and to ensure newly airtight homes are well ventilated and avoid issues with damp and humidity.
  • A ‘whole house approach to retrofit’ to ensure retrofit plans for homes consider improvements to the fabric, services and renewable energy generation in a coherent way to minimise both risks and carbon emissions.

In other words, we need to consider fabric measures and getting off gas (or other fossil fuels) in parallel.

It also takes a ‘risk’ based approach, recommending that assessors consider the possible hurdles not only the benefits of different courses of action.

For a 90m² home (the average floor area for UK houses) the ‘Net Zero Toolkit’ provides costing for a both ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ retrofit. Including all the potential measures it comes to a total cost of £14,770 for ‘shallow’ and £54,220 for ‘deep’ retrofit. But a heat pump is only included in the ‘deep’ retrofit case, so this is still pursuing the view that deep fabric measures are required before including a heat pump.

Leaving heat pumps till later, after the retrofit budget has potentially been blown on fabric measures, is not the answer. So while the ‘Net Zero Toolkit’ is a great improvement on the apparent Retrofit Academy position, it could go further.

In terms of actual measures recommended, I feel it still falls short of recognising that heat pumps need to be included much earlier in the conversation.

If we include only those measures related to ‘fabric’ (i.e. exclude heating systems and solar energy) the costs are reduced to £10,970 and £38,720, respectively.

How many 90m² floor area home owners have £38,000 to spend, and still have money and appetite left over to do the heat pump project?

‘Fabric first’ can easily become ‘Fabric only’ on this path.

We still have a lack of recognition of the urgency of getting off gas.

What does the Government say?

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in a recent study have findings that completely contradict the position of the Retrofit Academy. BEIS conclude:

‘This project shows that Great Britain’s homes can convert to electric heating at a cost far lower than the accepted wisdom. This can be achieved with no threat to comfort, and greenhouse gas emissions will fall very dramatically as a result.’

In answer to the question on what should be ‘the balance of heating technologies to insulation measures’ they conclude:

‘The work focused on total costs of ownership over 15 years. For most house types and most electric heating systems, the cost-optimal packages of measures have very limited fabric improvements – most commonly just draught-sealing and top-up loft insulation. High-cost improvements, like internal or external wall insulation, hardly ever repay the capital costs over 15 years.’

This is in part why the Government and Climate Change Committee are following a pragmatic approach and see a combination of heat pumps and district heating as cornerstones of heating decarbonisation.

Cost-effectiveness of fabric/ renovation measures to deal with peak heat demand

This essay is focused on decision making at the householder level, not at national system level, but since some concerns has been raised regarding peak (electricity) demand for space heating in winter, I have added this section to look at the cost dimension. There is research published since I first wrote this essay, that analyses the relative cost effectiveness of fabric measures in dealing with peak heat demand at a national level [8]. The paper says:

“Geographically, the amount of saved space heat differs strongly between countries (see figure 8). The strength of building renovation depends on the interplay between the costs of refurbishment and those for energy supply during the heating season.  … Countries with a large share of wind generation, such as Great Britain, Denmark or Portugal, have cheaper electricity in winter and therefore a lower [requirement for] renovation as a result.”

In the UK, and assuming the distribution is allowed to strengthen (why wouldn’t it be, but conservatively with transmission grid is as it is today), then only a 10% reduction in heat demand using renovation/ fabric measures is cost effective. This is a suprising result, but arisies from the UK’s very significant wind assets and future potential, which correlates well with peak heat demand. It is similar to the number projected by the UK’s Climate Change Committee of 12% cited earlier.

I intend to write a separate essay ‘Peak Anxiety’, exploring the national system issue of peak electricity demand. Now I’ll return to the householder perspective.

Why heat pumps must be considered at the start of a retrofit conversation

If we focus on avoiding dangerous global warming, the single biggest thing a householder can do to reduce their carbon foot print is to install a heat pump.

Yes, it must be a fair transition and poorer families need help with grants or other measures to switch away from fossil fuels, but the direction of travel is clear.

I previously illustrated this (see here ), using data from the Energy Saving Trust, plotting the capital cost of different measures versus the carbon saving of those measures per year. I am including this graphic below.

Air-Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) are now so efficient they compete very favourable with Ground-Source Heat Pumps (GSHPs), and at half the project cost, so we focus on ASHPs, which are likely to dominate the market [6].

An ASHP is the single best way for a householder to reduce their carbon footprint, by a long way.

A retrofit assessor may say,

‘Yes, but we have to consider comfort too. That bay window is poorly insulated so, whether it is a gas boiler or heat pump heating the home, sitting by the window will feel cool and only fabric measures can fix that’.

This is true and a householder needs to express their requirements clearly, and be presented with the options and costs. They can then judge which measures they ‘value’, in terms of the different criteria – comfort, capital costs, running costs and carbon reduction.

Different people with exactly the same situation may arrive at different conclusions.

But if they say that carbon saving is their number one priority, and secondly, they’d like to keep running costs similar, then a heat pump and modest fabric measures is an option that will score extremely well (or should do, if the assessment tools are fit for purpose).

Maybe, instead of the mantra ‘Fabric first’, we need ‘Efficiency first’, because it is that which delivers lower carbon emissions.

How do we deal with hard to treat homes?

The conversation often centres on old leaky homes, of which the UK famously has many. The Buildings Research Eastablishment (BRE) estimated a while ago that the UK had over 10 million ‘hard to treat’ homes (and there are nearly 30 million homes with gas boilers in the UK). About half of these buildings (about 5 million) were built before 1900.

These 10 million are often but not exclusively larger homes with high gas heating bills. So addressing the needs of this 1/3rd of the retrofit challenge would make a disproportionately large contribution to decarbonising heating in the UK.

But whether it is Roger Harrabin reporting on the BBC, or many others who count themselves as ‘green’, we hear it stated repeatedly (without reference to evidence) that householders must have high levels of retrofit before even considering a heat pump.

Some will even repeat the myth that you cannot heat old ‘leaky’ buildings with a heat pump. This is one of the myths that is addressed here.

Heat pump scepticism is wrong for several reasons:

  • you can heat any building with a heat pump that can be heated with a gas boiler (you just need to size the heat pump and the emitters/ radiators correctly);
  • with the efficiency of modern heat pumps and quite modest insulation, a heat pump can match or even reduce the running costs of the boiler it is replacing, as shown here;
  • because the electricity grid is getting greener and greener every year, once a heat pump is installed the heating gets greener and greener with every year that follows (as illustrated in the graphic earlier).

But the questions remain: how do we deal with hard to treat homes? How much insulation do we do before we get rid of the old gas boiler?

The heat demand of a building is an important measure of its efficiency, but how do you compare the thermal efficiency of a large 6-bedroom detached house with a 3-bedroom semi? The fair way to do it is to divide the heat demand by the floor area of the house, which gives a measure – the heat demand per unit area – that is a universal measure of the ‘efficiency’ of the building’s fabric.

In the UK, the average home has an annual heat demand, using this measure, of about 130 kilowatthours (thermal energy) per square metre per annum (or 130 kWh/m².a for short). A new build, highly efficient ‘PassivHaus’ requires only 15 kWh/m².a. The Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders (AECB) have a target of 50 kWh/m².a when carrying out a (fabric) retrofit project, but they will relax this (e.g. for a Listed Building) to 100 kWh/m².a in some case, because some measures (like wall insulation) may prove impractical or impossible to include.

The implementation of retrofit on old buildings needs to be done with considerable experience and care, as a report by the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance (STBA), in part sponsored by Historic England, explored.

Let’s start with a 90-100m² home with solid walls that is poorly insulated and ‘hard to treat’, and requires nearly 200 kWh/m².a to heat it currently with its gas boiler.

The following sequence considers a sequence of options (A-E) for when to install an Air-Source Heat Pump (ASHP), alongside increasing levels of ‘fabric’ retrofit measures. As we move from left to right on the bottom axis, fabric measures are added that reduce the heat demand of the building. That in turn will reduce the cost of the heat pump project.

Because we still need hot water and some heating, the drop in the cost of the heat pump project is less dramatic than the rise in the cost of the fabric measures, and there will be a cross-over point where the cumulative cost of the fabric measures is equal to the cost of installing a heat pump (at that level of building efficiency). Let’s run through the options.

A. Doing nothing on fabric or gas means bills will escalate

This is the start – the ‘do nothing’ option.

There is a serious risk that such a home will have lower resale value in the future, and will of course not contribute to lowering the carbon footprint of the home.

By starting to think about retrofit (including getting off gas), home owners might find themselves doing things they have put off for years, like clearing the loft (ready for insulation), and fixing that leaky front door.

B. Getting off gas early prioritises planet, without bills needing to rise

In this case, the householder installs an ASHP early in their retrofit journey, alongside limited fabric measures, such as loft insulation to modern standard, and seals / brushes for doors and sash windows to deal with drafts.

It may be a surprise to people that getting off gas early prioritises planet, without bills needing to rise. The reasons for this are:

  • A 25 year old, 70% efficient gas boiler wastes energy, so the net cost of a unit of ‘heat energy’ delivered is greater than 3p (the nominal unit price for a kWh of gas in July 2021), so 3p/0.7 = 4.3p per kWh of heat delivered/ required.
  • The nominal cost of electricity to run the heat pump (at July 2021 rates) is 15p per kWh. Taking a performance of 300% for a modern properly installed heat pump over the seasons, the householder would be paying 15p/3.0 = 5p per kWh of heat delivered.
  • Assuming that the limited measures taken mean that heat demand reduces by 20% less then we would paying effectively 4p instead, which is lower more than old unit cost (4.3p)
  • As levies on electricity move over to gas in coming years (as the Government has indicated), the running costs of the ASHP will lower further (and will rise for the gas).
  • As the electricity grid gets greener and greener, so does the heat pump, without the householder having to do anything, so the carbon reductions delivered improve year on year.
  • It is crucial that the house has a proper heat loss assessment done, and the heat pump is sized correctly, and that radiators are also assessed and upgraded where necessary on a room by room basis.

This refutes the belief that early adoption of a heat pump is a no-go area for hard to treat homes.

C. Further pragmatic fabric measures lower heat demand and bills

In this case a householder installs an ASHP, and in addition to limited fabric measures – loft insulation to modern standard, and seals / brushes for doors and sash windows to deal with drafts – installs:

  • pragmatic window measures (replacing some windows with double or triple glazing but prioritising lower cost secondary glazing, particularly in conservation area), and;
  • for one or two rooms, additional measures for cold walls or floors where possible, for comfort reasons if nothing else, and;
  • might add localised mechanical ventilation and heat recovery (MVHR) for a specific room or two (kitchen and shower) to deal with condensation issues.

Alongside reducing bills, these fabric measures can deliver improved comfort (such as in key problem areas like bay windows).

D. More fabric measures reduce bills, but can delay getting off gas

The householder installs an ASHP late after extensive and often disruptive retrofit measures to many rooms, including double or triple glazed new windows throughout and insulation for some floors and walls, and extensive MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery) recommended to deal with moisture that would otherwise be trapped.

Older buildings are used to ‘breathing’ and that prevents the build up of moisture. As we greatly reduce leaks in these buildings, and add insulation, there are significant risks of harm to the traditional underlying fabric of the building due to moisture. Historic England has documented many cases where harm has been done in old buildings, and they recommend the use of breathable insulation materials to minimise such risks. Moisture can give rise to health issues if mould results.

That is why PAS2035/ PAS2030 aims to deliver improved skills in doing more extensive fabric retrofit. I am concerned that the skills required to effectively assess and implement these more extensive measures, and the costs, will deplete a house owners ‘retrofit budget’ to the extent that there is no money left to switch off gas and install a heat pump.

This is also problematic because a householder will rarely implement fabric measures in a single short-term project. In practice it can take many years to implement a wide range of measures; especially where householders are living with the work.

Often, debates on retrofit fail to take account of these real-world issues of limited budgets, extended timelines, and risks of poor delivery of deeper retrofit. Conversely, the challenges of fitting heat pumps are overstated by comparison. We need a much better balance in these debates.

E. Further fabric measures very difficult to justify

A householder installs an ASHP very late after an extensive and disruptive building project:

  • Removing problematic fabric and replacing with energy efficient materials for walls (internal or external), floors and windows;
  • Possibly going below ground floor level at walls to eliminate thermal bridging issues with floor insulation, and;
  • Full external cladding of building, or internal wall insulation;
  • Installs MVHR throughout the house.

These measures would greatly increase comfort and minimise bills. Heating requirements theoretically become minimal (although hot water would still be required, and specialised heat pumps dedicated to hot water are available).

However, in practice, such levels of fabric retrofit are not achievable for hard-to-treat homes at reasonable levels of cost and disruption. And for Britain’s housing stock, this is not achievable on a timescale commensurate with the climate emergency. This point seems to be lost on advocates for deep retrofit.

People talk about the lack of heat pump engineers, but I would argue that training these up is a relatively simple task when compared with the breadth of knowledge required to deal with a large range of historic and current building materials and how to use them in a way that avoids creating problems.

Pragmatic ‘save the planet’ Retrofit

So these are the householder options:

A) Doing nothing on fabric or gas means bills will escalate;

B) Getting off gas early prioritises planet, without bills needing to rise;

C) Further pragmatic fabric measures lower heat demand and bills;

D) More fabric measures reduce bills, but can delay getting off gas;

E) Further fabric measures very difficult to justify.

And for me, concerned about the urgency to limit dangerous global warming, options B or C are the pragmatic way forward in many cases.

‘Insulate Britain! Yes, but by how much?‘ House owners are asking.

‘By enough’ is the answer, and far less than is the received wisdom of those calling for ‘deep retrofit’.

It certainly needs to be at a level that leaves enough in the budget to get off burning fossil fuels. For many or most householders, that means installing an Air-Source Heat Pump [7].

Anything less is not treating the climate emergency with the urgency it requires.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2021 (updates added below, 14th January 2022)

Notes

[1] ‘Net Zero Carbon Toolkit’ by Levitt Bernstein, Elementa, Passivhaus Trust and Etude, www.cotswold.gov.uk/media/05couqdd/net-zero-carbon-toolkit.pdf

This toolkit was commissioned by West Oxfordshire, Cotswold and Forest of Dean District Councils, funded by the LGA Housing Advisers Programme. It is licensed under Creative Commons Licence 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Licence Deed: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/legalcode

[2] Guide to Heat Pumps, https://www.retrofitacademy.org/coe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Guide-to-Heat-Pumps.pdf

[3] Consider a householder who spent £25,000 on a new kitchen 7 years ago and is advised that they need to insulate the back wall of the kitchen and the floor. This would require the kitchen to be removed and expensive and disruptive work must be done to accomplish the work, even assuming the kitchen can be refitted. In practice, many of those who do attempt ‘deep’ retrofit do so only over an extended period rather than as a ‘big bang’ project.

[4] Lucien Cook of Savills was on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Your and Yours’ (8-11-21), quoting from research done by Savills, said that to get from EPC D to C, a householder would need to spend £6,500 but would only reduce energy bills by £180 per year (which would take 36 years to break even).

[5] Lawrence Bowles of Savills, commenting on research on valuations of homes:

‘By analysing average values of homes transacted between 2018 and 2020 we found that homes with newer, cleaner, methods of energy demand a much higher price tag. Across England and Wales, buyers purchasing a home with a heat pump fitted are paying on average 68 per cent more for the offer of cleaner energy.’

[6] As the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) ceases at the end of March 2022, with a much higher grant for GSHPs than ASHPs, to be replaced (it has been signalled) by an upfront grant with an expected marginal uplift for GSHPs, the likelihood is that the great majority of heat pump installations will be air source (even for the minority of home homeowners that have the land area for laying the slinkies required; and bore holes are even more costly and risky for a single householder to attempt).

[7] For those who live in flats or dense dwellings in towns and cities an ASHP may be problematic because of lack of space for a cylinder, for example (although small systems are being developed). For such case, and for office buildings, low carbon District Heating will often be the preferred alternative, as the Climate Change Committee recognises. But remember that District Heating refers to a heat distribution network, which still needs a heat source. The heat source may itself be a large scale heat pump, such as the water-source heat pump planned for Stroud District Council. Since towns and cities are typically close to rivers or the sea – carrying huge quantities of thermal energy – this is likely to be a popular approach that is already being implemented, to decarbonise heating in many urban settings.

[8] “Mitigating heat demand peaks in buildings in a highly renewable European energy system”, Elisabeth Zeyen, Veit Hagenmeyer, Tom Brown, https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2012.01831

Supplementary material https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S036054422101032X#appsec1

Thanks also to Lisa Zeyen for private communications regarding these results, although I naturally suggest readers access the original work to get a full and complete understanding of the results. I hope I have not misrepresented them!

Updates

A. Published 8th November 2021: A Progress report on improving Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) in the UK. This is positive news. The devil will be in the detail, of course, but encouraging.

B. The latest Government (BEIS) research concludes:
“Decarbonised electricity offers the promise of very low or even zero-carbon heating for homes – without necessarily carrying out extensive deep retrofit work. This project shows that Great Britain’s homes can convert to electric heating at a cost far lower than the accepted wisdom. This can be achieved with no threat to comfort, and greenhouse gas emissions will fall very dramatically as a result.”

and tellingly also concludes:

“The work focused on total costs of ownership over 15 years. For most house types and most electric heating systems, the cost-optimal packages of measures have very limited fabric improvements – most commonly just draught-sealing and top-up loft insulation. High-cost improvements, like internal or external wall insulation, hardly ever repay the capital costs over 15 years.”

Although some might argue with the 15 year time horizon, this is hardly a slam dunk for deep retrofit; quite the opposite.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cost-optimal-domestic-electrification-code

C. On the interesting question of continuous versus intermittment heating when using a heat pump Nicola Terry (in “Will heating your house constantly use more energy?”, 12th January 2022) clearly comes down in favour of continuous heating (the main reason being the relative inefficiency when a heat pump has to heat a house from cold/ colder state).

. . . o o O o o . . .

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Is 2°C a big deal?

Alok Sharma, President for COP 26, told a recent meeting:

“Every fraction of a degree makes a difference”

Reported by  Shaun Spiers, Executive Director of Green Alliance UK, on Twitter (@ShaunSpiers1, 5th October 2021.  

Alok Sharma talked powerfully of the real impact of climate change across the world. Richer countries have a moral duty to act, and it’s in their self interest. 

Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s Energy & Environment Analyst since 2004, responded:

“This is such a hard concept to get across. @AlokSharma_RDG is right – every fraction of a degree really does matter. But how to you explain that to the public who may not even take off a layer of clothing for  two degrees?”

I would direct Roger and anyone else seeking an answer to Katharine Hayhoe, who is the supreme master of communication on such questions. Her short video “What’s the Big Deal With a Few Degrees?” answered the question in a very accessible way.

1°C is already big deal

As Katharine Hayhoe concludes, the Earth is already “running a temperature”, and on Twitter said:

“Using our body temperature is one simple and surprisingly relevant analogy. A fever of 2°C has significant, noticeable, and if sustained long-term, dangerous impacts on our health & well-being.”

The Earth System is very complex, and so is the human body. Part of this wonderful complexity is the ability to self regulate. Under normal conditions this manifests itself as a stable system in dynamic equilibrium, albeit with minor variations and cycles (such as the seasons and mentrual cycles).

Since the end of the last ice age, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and hence the global averaged temperature of Earth (not to be confused with weather), has remained remarkably stable, despite large flows of carbon associated with the carbon cycle (which tend to cancel each other out). Human civilisation and its agriculture have emerged over 10,000 years, benefiting from this largely stable climate.

Human emissions since the industrial revolution about 200 years ago have now increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by 1/3rd from 280 parts per million to 414 ppm [1]. This is level is more than at any time in the last 2 million years [2]. 

This is already causing a major disruption in the delicate balance that has existed in pre-industrial times, and we are already seeing the impacts in the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Each fraction of a degree is important in limiting the damage.

To explain what seems at first to be such a surprising consequence from such a small change is important to realise a few things:

  • the land on Earth is under 30% of the total surface area, and the ocean’s temperature is moderated by the heat capacity of a large volume of water, so land is proportionally more affected.
  • as was predicted in 1967 [3], there is proportionally more warming as you move towards the poles.  This not only warms high latitude regions, but disrupts the jet streams that help drive weather patterns at lower latitudes.
  • the rises in temperature are not evenly spread around the world and in a cruel twist, many regions which are the poorest and least responsible for emissions will face the worst impacts.
  • a shift in the averaged temperature hides a massive increase in the chance of weather extremes.
  • at both extremes of the hydrological cycle (dry regions and wet regions) there is a tendency to magnify these extremes (dry regions get drier, wet regions wetter).
Adapted from Hansen & Sako (2016, 2020)

Even with ‘just’ a 0.9°C increase (relative to pre-industrial, this is a 1.2°C increase) in a global mean surface temperature between the 1951-1980 average, and 2009-2019 average, Hansen and Sako have  shown [4]: 

  • hot summers on land in the Northern Hemisphere already occur twice as often and, 
  • extremely hot summers (like 2003) already at least 200 times more often   

As Katharine Hayhoe explained, a 1°C rise in GMST is an enormous amount of energy. 

The difference between a 1.5°C rise and a 2°C rise is highly significant. The IPCC’s 1.5°C Special Report [5] [6] showed a number of ways in which the impacts of 2°C are significantly magnified compared to 1.5°C:

“At 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, about 14 percent of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least once every five years, while at 2 degrees warming that number jumps to 37 percent.”

Humanity has left it so late to act that avoiding 1.5°C is now well nigh impossible (according to the IPCC), but we can still decide and act to keep below 2°C, and must avoid the increasingly dangerous higher temperatures.

We are warming very fast

Climate change is happening in a mere flick of the fingers on geological timescale.

Going back as far as the emergence of Homo Sapiens less than 300,000 years ago, the rate of increase in carbon dioxide levels has never been this fast, and the global mean surface temperature has never risen this fast.

It got me thinking about how to articulate why the current rate of change is truly unprecedented.

It is important to note that there is usually an initiating cause of a global warming episode in Earth’s deep past – such as orbital changes that provide the drum beat for ice ages, or even earlier, extreme volcanism. But the main cause of the warming has without exception, since life has existed on Earth, been the release of greenhouse gases. These have been principally carbon dioxide and methane released over thousands of years (short on geological timescales).

Our current situation is quite different for 3 reasons:

  • The initiating cause and the main cause are one and the same: human caused emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels (3/4 of the problem) and emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture (1/4 of the problem).
  • The period over which this is occurring is an instant in geological terms, just 200 years or so since the start of the industrial revolution,
    • whereas for the exit from the last ice age, it took 8,000 years [8]
    • another analogue to the current fast warming is the PETM (Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum) with an initial burst of greenhouse gases and warming over a period of between 3,000 and 20,000 years [9]
  • Human choices are the ultimate cause, and we can stop it.

Currently we have warmed by about 1.2°C in less than 200 years. 

The rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations is a useful indicator of risk, because it is the doubling of concentrations that give rise to an increment of warming of about 3°C. Only by stopping emissions can we stop further warming.

The rise in CO2 concentrations averaged over 200 years is 0.67 part-per-million per year (ppm/yr), which is unprecedented. The PETM higher rate of rise of 0.42 ppm/yr comes close, but the exit from the last ice age is much slower, at a rate of 0.01 ppm/yr.

If we continue on the high emissions path we are on, we could reach 4.4°C of warming (3.3°C – 5.7°C range, relative to pre-industrial) [10]. 

This results from a further increase on carbon dioxide concentrations at a rate of 9 ppm/yr [11], which would far exceed even the upper estimates of the rate of increase during the PETM.

I have summarised all this in the following table.

Rate of change of carbon dioxide concentration currently compared to prior events (Richard Erskine, 2021)

I wonder how anyone can imagine we are not in a climate emergency looking at this table.

(c) Richard W Erskine, 2021.

[correction – I transcribed the wrong numbers from the table to the narrative for duration of PETM pulse – now fixed]

. . . o o O o o . . .

Notes 

  1. See atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels, 1800–present, https://www.sealevel.info/co2.html  (original sources NOAA and NASA).
  2. The IPCC states “In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years” (in Ref. A, section A.2.1)
  3. Manabe and Wetherald in 1967 published results using the first full model of the greenhouse effect including radiative, convective, and other key aspects, to model the greenhouse effect on earth (Manabe having received a share on the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions)
  4. James Hansen and Makiko Sato published estimates in 2016 (Ref. B). These have now updated in 2020 in, see http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2020/20200706_ShiftingBellCurvesUpdated.pdf 
  • Hansen and Sato use baseline 1951-80, which is 0.3°C above the accepted Pre-industrial baseline. So the 0.9°C of warming to date, is equivalent to 1.2°C relative to pre-industrial.
  1. See IPCC Reference C, and and useful summary by NASA, Reference D.
  2. Global Warming of 1.5C, A Special Report by the IPCC https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ 
  3. During a much earlier period in geological history, about 56 million years ago, when the world was already warm and ice free, there was an event that lead to extremely fast (in geological terms) warming. It is called the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This is described by the IPCC as follows (Ref. A):

“A geologically rapid, large-magnitude warming event at the start of the Eocene when a large pulse of carbon was released to the ocean-atmosphere system, decreasing ocean pH and oxygen content. Terrestrial plant and animal communities changed composition, and species distributions shifted poleward. Many deep-sea species went extinct and tropical coral reefs diminished.”

  1. The Last Glacial Maximum was 23-19 thousand years ago (Reg. A). The current period of interglacial temperatures has lasted 10-11 thousand years. I take 19-11=8 thousand years are the period of exit from the last ice age.
  2. For PETM, numbers taken from IPCC (Ref. A) are: 900->2,000 ppm CO2 (sect 2.2.3.1); 0.04-0.42 ppm CO2/yr(Table 2.1) and estimate of 5°C (4°C – 7°C  range) globally averaged warming (sect 2.3.1.1.1). Although a new study (Inglis (2020) suggests greater warming.
  3. The SSP5-8.5 high emissions scenario gives rise to a warming of 4.4°C [3.3°C – 5.7°C range] relative to pre-industrial by 2100 (see Table SPM.1 in Reference A).
  4. Box TS.5 in Ref. A indicates SSP6-8.5 would have cumulative emissions of 11,000 GtCO2. But Figure SPM.7 has 38% of these emissions absorbed by ocean and land/biosphere, so 0.62*11,000=6,820 GtCO2 CO2 remains in atmosphere (for a long time). Now Mackay noted “A useful way to calculate things is to remember that 127 part per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere equates to 1000 GtCO2”, so 6,820 GtCO2 equates to 6.82 * 127 = 866 ppm CO2. We need to add that to the pre-industrial level of 280, giving a total 1146 ppm CO2. Now, dividing this by 80 years (2020 to 2100) gives 9 ppm CO2 per year on average. Note that this case includes high GHG emissions, but also incorporates a reduced level of take up of greenhouse gases in the oceans, land and biosphere (something that many who criticise this scenario as ‘pessimistic’ fail to grasp).

References

A. IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

B. James Hansen and Makiko Sato (2016) Environ. Res. Lett. 11 034009

C. Global Warming of 1.5C, A Special Report by the IPCC https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

D. Alan Buis, A Degree of Concern: Why Global Temperatures Matter, NASA, 19th June 2019 https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2865/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter/

. . . o o O o o . . .

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UK Hydrogen Strategy


The UK’s first hydrogen strategy was issued this week. It caused a lot of heated debate.

This is in the context of the latest IPCC Report. Commenting on it Dr Emily Schuckburgh noted in Carbon Brief:

“Ever more certain, ever more detailed. That’s the brief summary I would give the AR6 WG1 summary for policymakers (SPM). Once again it provides a comprehensive chronicle of extreme weather induced by climate change and the risk of catastrophic future impacts. It estimates the remaining carbon budget from 2020 for a reasonable chance (67%) of limiting warming to 1.5C is 400bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). With global emissions in 2020 of 40 GtCO2, this re-emphasises that this decade is critical”.

There is no dispute that hydrogen will play an important role in decarbonising some areas of the economy, especially hard to deal with ones like steel and fertiliser production.

But the report is a little disappointing in sitting on the fence on a number of issues, notably transport and heating, where there is doubt as to the role hydrogen will play. The report says (p. 62):

“Before hydrogen for heating can be considered as a potential option to decarbonise heat in buildings, we need to generate further evidence on the costs, benefits, safety, feasibility, air quality impacts and consumer experience of using low carbon hydrogen for heating relative to other more established heat decarbonisation technologies.”

And (p. 65):

“We recognise that the longer-term role for hydrogen in transport decarbonisation is not yet clear, but it is likely to be most effective in the areas where energy density requirements or duty cycles and refuelling times make it the most suitable low carbon energy source. 

But despite these sensible cautionary words, the report goes on to try and give the impression that domestic heat and transport are still in play, given more research. But are they?


In the area of cars, many car manufacturers have halted or are cutting back R&D on hydrogen fuel cell cars. One of the issues is the relative inefficiency compared to Electric Vehicles (EVs), but building out the infrastructure is another concern.

“You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars,”

said Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess, speaking to the Financial Times, adding that the idea of a big market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is …

“very optimistic … not even in 10 years, because the physics behind it are so unreasonable,”

For heating, if we were to use ‘Green Hydrogen’ (created via electrolysis using renewables) to heat our homes, it would require nearly 6 times as many wind turbines compared to directly using the electricity to power heat pumps (which harvest ambient energy in the environment, and so are much more efficient) [1]

The Committee on Climate Change rather highlighted this in their 6th Carbon Budget where they state (for their ‘balanced pathway’):

“By 2030 37% of public and commercial heat demand is met by low-carbon sources. Of this low-carbon heat demand 65% is met by heat pumps, 32% district heating and 3% biomass. By 2050 all heat demand is met by low-carbon sources of which 52% is heat pumps, 42% is district heat, 5% is hydrogen boilers and around 1% is new direct electric heating.”

Or as Professor Cebon said in the Financial Times:

“Hydrogen should be used only as a last resort for sectors that have no option to electrify … Directing public funds towards hydrogen in sectors that have  more effective alternaive solutions is a mistake”.

In other news, Octopus Energy will soon be making a major announcement on heat pumps (they have been teasing the market on Twitter), and are expected to offer a much reduced cost for components and services, to provide a mass market offer. If the Government comes through with an up front grant of several thousand pounds for installation of heat pumps (air source), to replace the Renewable Heat Incentive (which expires in March 2022), this could be a game changer (in terms of mass adoption).

It has been a turbulent week for hydrogen. 

Chris Jackson, chair of UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association Chair has stepped down owing to the Government’s continued support for ‘Blue Hydrogen’ (derived from natural gas, and which involves burying a by product, carbon dioxide, using a method called ‘carbon capture and storage’ that has not yet been proven at scale, but is being pushed by fossil fuel companies like Shell). Chris Jackson said:

“I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on that fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use,” 

It feels like the debate over hydrogen will continue, just as it has been for decades, with fossil fuel interests continuing to try to shape the debate in their favour, with arguably far too much influence in policy circles.

In the meantime we need to decarbonise fast, and we don’t have time to waste – just 10 years to put a serious dent in emissions as the IPCC has indicated. Do we really have the time to keep kicking the hydrogen can down the road?

They say the market will decide.

The good news is that for both cars and heating we have electrification solutions (EVs and heat pumps) available, and they are growing in popularity.

Maybe the market already has decided.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2021

Notes

[1] “Hydrogen: A decarbonisation route for heat in buildings?”, LETI, February 2021, https://www.leti.london/hydrogen

(based on original work by Professor Cabon – see https://www.gshp.org.uk/Hydrogen_for_Heating.html )

Figure from the above report. For ‘Green Hydrogen’ we would need a factor of 270%/46% more renewables generation to match the heat provided by heat pumps, that is, nearly 6 times as many off-shore wind turbines operating in winter when we need the heat, for example.

. . o o O o o ..
 

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Is individual behaviour the solution to climate change?

The short answer is: no and yes.

There is a lot of debate about the role of individual actions in relation to climate change. Allegra Stratton was rightly mocked for suggesting people should refrain from rinsing plates before they are put in the dishwasher. Michael Mann makes a much more serious point, saying that fossil fuel interests – having moved on from climate science denial – are,

“trying to convince people that climate change is not the result of their corporate policies but of our own individual actions” (Scientific American, January 12, 2021)

And of course, Michael Mann does not say that behaviour change is unimportant, but it should not be used to distract us from the much bigger actions that large organisations (especially fossil fuel ones), supply chains and Governments must take.

Whilst others stress the importance of systems change, and the coupled role of behaviour change. Lloyd Alter writes that behaviour change is important:

… because we have to stop buying what the oil and car and plastics and beef companies are selling; If we don’t consume, they can’t produce. It makes a difference; I vote every four years, but I eat three times a day.” (Treehugger, May 11, 2021)

And we have to recognise there are limitations to personal actions when not supported by the system. If I want to ditch the car and take an EV bus to go to work 10 miles away, I cannot do that if there is no EV bus (and maybe no bus at all, at the times I need them).

So, at whatever scale we look at it, and through whatever ‘lens’ we choose, we see the connectedness of actions by individuals, businesses, public institutions, local government, national government and multi-nationals.

I want to show at the scale of a town, how we might think about the power that resides in the hands of individuals; and they can possess multiple persona. Yes, they are consumers, but they are so much more. They are voters, employees, church-goers, parents, children, neighbours, and so much more.

If we break the silence and talk about climate change – not the science but what it can mean in terms of progressive action – it’s amazing how easy it is to start a conversation.

We need to think about the ‘agency’ that individuals possess, within the network of actors in a local community. The influence they have is much more than the narrow framing of consumerism. We see a richer systems view of influence and reinforcing feedbacks, with multiple actors involved, and individuals taking on a variety of personas. Here is a little illustrative doodle I created:


Each of these actors can be self-reinforcing too. The householder can influence a neighbour, just by chatting over the fence (I left out these little looped arrows, to avoid making the schematic too busy).

A climate action group (not shown) can – if it is being effective – engage with all the actors in this schematic by various methods and channels, by networking, engaging, and promoting interactions between them.

For example, holding a fair on house retrofit, and inviting relevant businesses, community groups, councillors and the local member of Parliament. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, my mother used to say!

This does not mean that personal action is unimportant – far from it – but when it can be seen as part of a collective goal to promote changes throughout the system, it is far more powerful. While personal actions today might only impact a fraction of the UK’s carbon footprint directly, indirectly it can have a much greater impact. System change (access to low carbon transport, help with decarbonising heating, etc.) together with personal choices is of course where we need to get to for a high impact on emissions.

The individual will also begin to realise the agency they have to promote not just change, but system change.

(c) Richard W. Erskine

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When does it make sense to switch to a heat pump?

Chris Mason on BBC News at Ten (tonight, on 9th August 2021, the day that the IPCC published the science part of their 6th Assessment Report) stated that (in relation to heat pumps):

“you need lots of insulation to make them work”.

This is completely false: you can heat any building with a heat pump that you can with a gas boiler. Why do BBC reporters keep repeating these myths?

In fact, and in the context of the IPCC report, if one’s main concern was the household carbon footprint, a heat pump would be the first thing anyone would do, as I showed here (given the diminishing carbon intensity of the UK’s electricity grid).

The counter argument commonly used is that the costs of running a heat pump (given today’s unit price for electricity) is unaffordable unless there is huge levels of insulation. Of course if we had a fair fight between gas and renewables, electricity prices would come down relative to gas.

But simple maths shows that even at current gas and electricity prices, if one were to replace an old 70% efficient gas boiler with a modern air-source heat pump (ASHP), then the running costs would not be any greater, with only modest insulation measures, as shown here.

A heat pump can heat any home that a gas boiler can. But it makes no sense to try to heat a barn – with a heat pump or a gas boiler! Insulation and draught reduction make sense – and help improve the comfort of a building – and so ‘fabric first’ is an important message. This leaves open the question: how much insulation a householder considers before they invest in a heat pump?

Depending on how an individual wants to spend their retrofit budget, there will be a cross-over point where acquiring an ASHP will trump any further increment in fabric spending. Adding fabric measures will reduce the size of the heat pump required, but only to a point, as there are some base costs for the system, and we need hot water whatever the state of the fabric.

There are small and large houses, well insulated ones and leaky ones. How do we make sense of the numbers?

A useful metric is the heat energy required to heat one square metre of a home per year (this is measured in kilowatthours per metre square per annum, or kWh/m².a). The average UK house – because our historic housing stock is quite leaky – requires about 130 kWh/m².a. The Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders (AECB) aims, when insulating homes, to reduce this measure to 50 kWh/m².a, although might accept as much as 100 kWh/m².a in the case of (say) a Listed Building. A new build Passivhaus aims to achieve just 15 kWh/m².a.

It is easy to work out what figure currently applies to your house.

Look at your annual energy bills. If heated by gas look at the kWh total for the year. Make a guesstimate for how much of this is space heating, say 80% in the current case. Now divide this figure by the floor area of the home. The question then to think – with the help of a retrofit assessor – how far you can reduce this number.

If you currently have poor loft insulation, then fixing this is relatively cheap and has great pay back. Similarly for cavity wall insulation, and for reducing draughts from doors and windows. You don’t need to rip out your sash windows and replace with double glazing; window brushes, and secondary glazing can make a great contribution with a modest investment. Pragmatism is often required, when assessing where you can get the ‘biggest bang for your buck’.

The other key idea is to think in terms not of ripping out things, but taking opportunities when they arise. So, if a new kitchen is being fitted, then why not use the opportunity to insulate that cold back wall, and maybe even consider underfloor insulation and heating? This is why retrofit can often best be seen as a journey to be followed over a number of years.

What follows is an illustrative schematic showing the balance between the money spent on fabric measures (solid line) and what would need to be spent on an ASHP system at a given level of heat demand. As the heat demand reduces (as a result of fabric spend), so does the cost of the ASHP system (including the heat pump and radiators). The schematic envisages a 4-bedroom semi-detached house with solid walls and poor insulation that is hard to treat, and starts (at the left hand side of schematic) with a terrible figure of 200 kWh/m².a [the numbers are illustrative only – each house is different]:

We then start to move from the left towards the right. Spending even modest money on fabric will mean that the size (and cost) of the heat pump system you might buy progressively reduces (e.g. there is a big drop if one moves from a cascade heat pump system to a single heat pump).

At some point, the marginal cost of incremental insulation will rise above the cost of an ASHP (when the solid line cross the dashed line). For example, replacing all the windows with double or triple glazing is a non-trivial expenditure.

And of course, to try to turn a leaky Victorian house into a Passivhaus makes little sense, so there are natural constraints in how far one goes, depending very much on house and site specific factors.

Some people may decide to adopt the ASHP early for a number of reasons (they need to replace an old gas boiler and care about the climate future, or they live in a house in a conservation area where measures like external wall insulation will not be accepted). They may live on a terrace and external wall insulation for one house without the whole terrace joining in, would meet a lot of resistance (including from the planning department). For whatever reason they make their choice, I call these, ASHP ‘eary adopters’.

On the other hand, they may live in a house that can absorb a lot of retrofit insulation measures – perhaps as new owners wanting to start with a ‘blankish’ canvas – and with the help of a retrofit assessor/ expert, strive to get to the AECB 50 kWh/m².a figure. Let’s suppose they don’t have constraints such as conservation issues to deal with. We might call them ASHP ‘late adopters’.

In practice, householders will be somewhere on a spectrum between these two example – in a decision spread zone. A whole set of factors may come into play in their decision making: wish to improve comfort, or reduce carbon emissions, or concern over gas prices in the future, to name just a few.

It therefore makes no sense to say “you need lots of insulation to make them work”.

No, you need “a sufficiency of insulation” to make the running costs “fit your expectations”, and everyone may arrive at different expectations.

But don’t try to heat a barn, with a gas boiler or a heat pump.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2021.

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Fantasy maths from the National Farmers Union

Soil carbon is important but it is staggering that both Minette Batters and Prince Charles have made unchallenged statements on @BBCr4today (14th July 2021): That some (livestock) farms are already carbon neutral and that soils could take up 70% of the world’s emissions.

This is all in an effort to promote sustainable livestock farming. Like Graham Harvey in his book ‘Grass-Fed Nation’ they have been seduced by the claims of Allan Savory; but these have been thoroughly debunked by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN)

The fallacy rests on a confusion between fast and slow carbon cycles, between carbon stocks and flows, which with a little bit of naive maths creates a myth that now permeates the NFU’s PR on the future of farming.

We need better soil health to reduce net carbon release in a warming world, but it is no good using this as a ploy to retain high levels of meat consumption; and we need a massive reduction in the consumption trend.

Godfray et al [1] show the path we are on:

Good soil health will help create sustainable arable farming, but not as a silver bullet to cancel our fossil fuel emissions. Massive reductions in meat production mirrors the same reversal that is needed in all sectors of our economy, and it is a fantasy to suggest otherwise.

Efficient land use is also an issue. Today, over 50% of the UK’s land is devoted to livestock (and this does not include the foodstock we import to supplement their diet), and we import over 40% of our food. To be more self reliant, we have to make a radical shift in diet and land use, as the Centre for Alternative Technology clearly demonstrates in their report Zero Carbon Britain: Rising to the Climate Emergency from which the following Figure is taken:

Livestock reduce the efficiency of calories produced per hectare [2], which is a major issue when it comes to feeding the world.

In the context of the climate emergency, the other issue is that livestock makes a high and increasing contribution to our carbon emissions [1]:

Trying to hide these emissions amongst some warm aspirational words about regenerative livestock farming in idyllic English countryside, is pure delusion (as well as being heavily funded PR), with no scientific basis.

It is such a shame that the NFU (National Farmers Union) are promulgating junk science to advance their meat-first agenda, and it seems that Prince Charles is also on board. 

. . . o o O o o . . .

Science references:

[1] Godfray et al., ‘Meat consumption, health, and the environment’, Science 361, 243 (2018)

[2] Cassidy et al., ‘Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare’, Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 034015

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My First Oil

Having worked with acrylics, watercolours and pastels for some years, I decided, finally to take the plunge and start to use oils. The scene is the view across to the River Severn and Wales from Selsey Common.

I’m still pinching myself that I managed to pull this off. 

The foreground gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Grasses were quite straw like with subdued green, and there was lots of undulations.

I remembered to use a little red to ‘knock back’ the greens, and then added combo of yellow ochre and white to progressively lighten it; and some raw sienna in the other direction (to darken), maybe a smidgen of red too in places.

Also, some slightly larger brush strokes in the foreground to suggest more resolved grass.

I remembered to ‘think tonally’ to observe and think about light and dark – there was a huge range to cope with here. I used some Prussian Blue to help with the deep shadows.

The distant fields was just a kind of noodling around trying to get a sense of distance – so cooler, more muted and less defined the further away.

Wales is just a light purple sliver beyond the Severn, which itself is just a hint of reflected light.

The two fields on the right were compositionally crucial to me as they helped establish a near-ground scale beyond the foreground.

Some flecks of white on the mid distance right for buildings – never forgetting the power of gestalt to allow the viewer to see what their mind reconstructs based on the tiniest of visual clues.

The sky was a struggle – I miss the dynamism of working with acrylics or watercolour, so need to practice my skies – but the good thing is that the dark clouds suggest a darkening of the distant land below, and the few yellowy green bright streaks suggestive of sun breaking through on some fields. A little green in the sky is another fully transferrable trick of the trade.

The foreground is in full sun with slopes facing the sun almost white.

The pros of oils are also the cons.

You can keep fiddling for days if you want (although I finished this over 5 hours on and off); so blending on canvas, and wiping away sometimes, is all possible. Acrylics allow for multiple layers and drying in between, with spraying and all sorts of jiggery-pokery; but the palette needs constant attention to stop it drying out. I think they are both wonderful – its like trying to choose a favourite dish – why choose?

I think I’m going to fall in love with oils … just like I did before with acrylics, watercolours and pastels!

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2021

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Are Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) a Silver Bullet?

According to the Committee on Climate Change heating our homes makes up 40% of our energy use and 20% of our carbon footprint. While there have been dramatic improvements in building standards since 1970 there remains a legacy of poorly insulated homes.

Retrofitting our often old housing stock to reduce heat loss is crucial, but we also need to stop using natural gas as the source of heating if we are to have any chance of meeting our goal of halting global heating. 

It got me thinking about this question – if someone asked about retrofitting their house, and was motivated by the desire to reduce the carbon footprint of heating their home: 

what is the first thing they should do?

It may seem a somewhat artificial question, because in any real world situation, several measures are likely to be advisable, but bear with me.

Many retrofit professionals repeat the mantra “fabric first”, which means, focusing on insulating the building, dealing with leaks, and so forth. This sounds like good advice, given that the cost of some measures, like insulating a loft, are relatively cheap and deliver big savings in carbon emissions.

However, in many cases this is expressed in stronger terms, like “deep retrofit”, which can mean doing everything possible to reduce the heat loss of a building. This could include external wall insulation to homes with solid walls (which cannot benefit from cavity wall insulation), new windows, and dealing with associated issues related to moisture, for example. This school of thought suggests that we should only consider using a heat pump after deep retrofit is complete [Note 1]. 

The mantra “fabric first” then effectively turns into fabric only, because it is not difficult to exhaust a householder’s retrofit budget with changes to the fabric of a building. 

So why should we be considering heat pumps alongside changes to the fabric of a building? 

A heat pump harvests the ambient energy outside a house – either from the air, the ground or water. This ambient energy comes from the sun (when the ground is used as a source it is never deep enough to harvest energy from the core of the Earth, even with a bore hole, and is simply extracting energy from the ground that has been warmed by the sun and stored there). 

For every unit of electrical energy put in to drive the heat pump, it is able to deliver at least 3 units of heat energy into the home. A nice simple explanation of this process is provided here.

Professor David Mackay wrote in his seminal 2010 book Sustainable Energy without the hot air (p.151):

“Let me spell this out. Heat pumps are superior in efficiency to condensing boilers, even if the heat pumps are powered by electricity from a power station burning natural gas. … It’s not necessary to dig big holes in the garden and install underfloor heating to get the benefits of heat pumps”

He was calling for the adoption of Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs). He didn’t use the words ‘silver bullet’ but it is clear he was a big fan and frustrated at the low level of take-up. As he wrote 

“heat pumps are already widely used in continental Europe, but strangely rare in Britain”.  

I thought about how to present some information to help explore the question I have posed, and compare fabric related measures to an ASHP. I took data from the Energy Saving Trust website for a typical semi-detached house and plotted the capital cost of different interventions against the annual carbon saving that would result.

The capital costs are indicative and include the parts and labour required.

The only change I made to the Energy Saving Trust data was I reduced the savings for an Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP) from about 4.5 tonnes of CO2 to about 3, because that better reflects the carbon intensity of the national grid in the UK in 2020.

I also indicate the level of disruption involved with colour coding, because this can be a factor in a householder’s decision making. The graph is based on the data tabulated in the Table at the end of this essay [Note 4] (click on image to see higher resolution):

This householder is aiming for the highest carbon saving, and there is only one answer glaring out at you from this graph: the ASHP.

If I change the question slightly we get a more nuanced answer:

what is the first thing they should do, based on carbon reduction ‘bangs for your buck’?

The ratio of the annual carbon saving to the capital cost is a measure of ‘bangs for your buck’.  On this criterion, it makes sense to do the low hanging fruit of loft insulation and fixing drafts, but then once again the ASHP scores very well (this allows for the fact that typically more than half the radiators will need to be upgraded [Note 2], and are included in the cost estimate).

Whereas external wall insulation would typically be similar in cost to an ASHP, but deliver only a third of the annual carbon saving and be a much more disruptive intervention; and in many cases not one that is practical to implement.

A counter argument would be that if we did manage (for a solid walled home) to do all the fabric related measures, we would achieve about 2,400 kgCO2/yr carbon saving (over half the current emissions of 4,540 kgCO2/yr) for an outlay of about £18,500; and then the ASHP could be added and would then ‘only’ need to deal with the remaining half, and that could mean that a lower capacity heat pump could be installed, reducing its cost somewhat.

Each situation will be different and depend on what interventions are possible. If a building is listed and external installation is prohibited (and the alternative of internal insulation dismissed), then the fabric related measures would then total 1,500 kgCO2/yr, leaving two thirds of emissions to be dealt with. 

In either case, in order to maximise the emissions reduction one would require a heat pump.

My argument is not that you must fit a heat pump first, but that you should consider all the available options and to think about a plan (possibly over a number of years). 

I went on to plot another graph where I included the following additional features:

  • To show the ‘best’ reasonable case fabric interventions (which would raise the cost of say, wall insulation, but at the same time increase the carbon saving). 
  • To include a Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) option, either with horizontally laid slinkies, or using vertical bore hole(s).
  • To show what happens as the UK electricity grid moves from 2020 carbon intensity levels to being 100% green.

The following illustrative graph was the result:

There are a number of interesting observations based on this graphic.

  • Firstly, as the arrows show, we can increase the carbon savings for each fabric related measure, but these improvements come at extra cost. There will be some trade off for each householder situation as to how far they can go.
  • Secondly, once you have a heat pump, the annual carbon saving will increase every year as the grid gets greener (as it has been in the UK), without the householder having to lift a finger.
  • Thirdly, while a GSHP may have a better performance than an ASHP, it is likely to be quite limited [Note 3], and as Paul Kenny said in his talk to Carbon Coop ‘Heat Pumps – Learning and experiences from Ireland’, if you have extra money spare, why not do the easy thing and spend it on further upgrades to radiators, when you can achieve a target COP without the major disruption and risks associated with a GSHP project (assuming that is even an option).
  • Fourthly, a borehole GSHP is even more costly, and more risky. There are significant risks associated with, for example, drilling into water tables, but the real killer is the cost. For a single householder it makes little sense. Of course, one can imagine scenarios where several houses could share the costs, but these are likely to be exceptional projects; not the basis for mass roll-out of heat pumps.

Some will argue that an ASHP requires supplementary heating during very cold spells in winter. However, in the same talk referred to above, Paul Kenny used data from a significant number of retrofits in Ireland that had ASHPs, using a design parameter of -3°C for cold winters. When the beast from the east came and these houses experienced -6°C, they were all fine and did not require supplementary heating. He wrote a piece on LinkedIn about this experience, which flies in the face of much of the ‘received wisdom’ in the retrofit community.

And in the UK, without the much larger grant that GSHPs enjoy, as compared to ASHPs, it is doubtful there would be anything other than a marginal role for GSHPs. It will be no surprise if ASHPs dominate the heat pump market in coming years and for some installers, this is already the case.

So, are Air Source Heat Pumps a silver bullet to decarbonising the heating of homes? 

One has to say in many ways they are!

But of course, in reality, it makes sense to consider them in the mix of other retrofit measures, and to carry out some improvements to the fabric of a building as part of a ‘whole house’ plan.

We just shouldn’t let the ‘deep retrofit’ mantra put people off considering an ASHP; maybe even as one of the first things you do.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2021

Notes

1. While I am a huge fan of PassivHaus and similar standards, we must remember that these standards cannot easily be applied to existing stock, and would be hugely expensive. 80% of the homes in 2050 already exist, so 80% of the problem of decarbonising heat in homes is already there; and BRE estimates there are 9 million ‘hard to treat’ homes in the UK.

2. Upgrading radiators is usually required to increase the effective surface area. This is needed because heat pumps operate at a lower flow temperature, and the heat delivered is a function of the temperature of the radiator and its surface area. The surface area can be increased by using 2 or more panels with fins sandwiched between them. This can also help reduce height and width of the radiator that would otherwise be necessary, while making the radiator somewhat deeper / fatter.

3. A GSHP has a better Coefficient of Performance (COP) in winter, an ASHP could do better in Spring and Autumn. The overall Seasonal COP for a GSHP will probably be higher but unlikely to be higher than 15%. We need real world studies to get a good figure here. But the cost of a GSHP using slinkies in 1.2m trenches (for those unusual cases where householders have sufficient land to achieve the area necessary) is something like double that for the ASHP. 

4. Table of Typical three bedroom, solid walled, semi-detached house

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Small Is Beautiful – local renewables and storage can catalyse the greening of grid

Governments of all shades, and energy utilities, tend to believe that large, centralised solutions are the most cost-effective because of the economies of scale. There is a belief  that local solutions will increase costs. 

Ground-breaking work by an energy modelling company in the USA (Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE)) has turned this argument on its head, and this could, or should, have profound implications for any strategy to decarbonise the power grid in any country, including the UK, with renewables playing a dominant role in the future.

VCE summarise some key conclusions:

The present study finds that by including the co-optimization of the distribution system, the contiguous United States could spend $473 billion less on cleaning the electricity system by 95% by 2050 and add over 8 million new jobs. … The findings suggest that local solar and storage can amplify utility-scale wind and solar as well as provide economic stimulus to all regions across the contiguous US.

The study finds that wind, solar, storage and transmission can be complements to each other to help reduce the cost to decarbonize the electricity system. Transmission provides spatial diversity, storage provides temporal diversity, and the wind and solar provide the low-cost, emission-free generation.

We understand that what is true for USA can be true of the UK. 

Now, in the UK, various groups have already published reports based on modelling of the grid to show that net zero is achievable. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) produced a report ‘Zero Carbon Britain – rising to the climate emergency’ that showed how this could be achieved. They used granular weather data to help model supply and demand at national scale. Energy storage was included at utility scale (using excess energy on windy/ sunny days to produce synthetic gas that could be used to generate electricity during periods when both wind and solar were too low to meet total demand).

VCE have gone much further in the sophistication and granularity of the modelling:

  • Firstly, they have modelled the dynamical behaviour of the grid at all scales – with 5 minute intervals and 3km square spatial grid over a minimum of 3 calendar year (and for planning reserves up to 175 years hourly at 30km grid). There was always a suspicion with other models that even if the national supply and demand appear to match up at a point in time, the grid will experience issues at particular points in the grid, particularly at local pressure points. VCE have addressed these weaknesses.
  • Secondly, the economics of how the roll-out of the capacity is achieved is key to policy. The modelling includes economic aspects to show the marginal cost of each new tranche of generating capacity; and so modelling the evolution of the network, not just an assumed end point. VCE have modelled the period between ‘now’ and future end dates to see what impact different scenarios have on the marginal and net costs. 

The astonishing result that VCE have found is that local renewables with local storage – even at only 10% of the total generating capacity – make a disproportionate impact on the speed and cost of further roll out of associated utility scale renewables. This is because it creates flexibility in the grid and relieves pressure points.

VCE note that this was an emergent behaviour of the system, which the modelling revealed, and certainly not obvious to energy specialists, because its only emerges when the model reaches a sufficient level of sophistication. 

The bottom line is that we should see local renewables (including community energy schemes) not as marginal additional capacity in the transition to a greening of the grid, but as a key ingredient to both speed up – and lower the cost of – the transition. We should see small and big as beautiful, working collaboratively, to accelerate the greening of the grid.

This may seem quite a technical point for those who are not students of the energy system, but it is truly remarkable and transformative, and from a policy perspective, it highlights the need for Governments to continue to promote and invest in large, utility scale renewables, but also to assist in the roll out of local renewables and associated storage.

UK Treasury, please take note!

References

“Why Local Solar For All Costs Less: A New Roadmap for the Lowest Cost Grid”, Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE), December 2020, https://www.vibrantcleanenergy.com/media/reports/ 

Note

VCE define emergent behaviour as follows:

Emergent behavior is characterized by properties and behavior that is not dependent on individual components, but rather the complex interactions and relationships between those individual components. Therefore, it cannot be fully predicted by simply observing or evaluating the individual components in isolation.

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Nuclear weapons and me

Remembering Hiroshima – the dead, the survivors and the blight that nuclear weapons have brought on this world – on this day, 75 years after the first nuclear weapon was used against a civilian population. A weapon, remember, that was developed because of a fear that Nazi Germany would develop it.

Joseph Rotblat, a scientist who I admire so much, left the project to develop a nuclear weapon when it became clear to him that Germany would not be able to develop it. Few if any others on the project possessed his moral vision and authority.

In 1981, Professor Mike Pentz, who led the formation of the OU (Open University) science department, founded Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA). I was at Bristol Uni. doing a Post Doc at the time.

I went to hear him speak. What an amazing and inspiring speaker he was; I signed up on the spot. The cruise missile crisis was in full swing.

Within months it seemed I was on the National Coordinating Committee of SANA.

It kind of killed my passion for science, something I’d been in love with since a young boy. I had a lab when I was just 12.

I left my research in computational quantum chemistry.

I went into the world of industry and in my spare time spent a lot of the 80s working in the background helping to develop tools for the anti-nuclear movement.

This included a Program to assess the impact of nuclear attacks, which I managed to squeeze onto an Amstrad PCW 8256 – with no hard disc and a memory of just 256K! Or 0.25Mb, or 0.00025Gb.

This program was given free to local authorities. 

During this time I had also married the beautiful nurse who I met in Bristol, and we brought up two girls. So Bristol always has a special resonance for me, on so many levels.

Eventually I was pretty burnt out and stepped back from nuclear activism – after all, we got rid of cruise. Job done, right?

If only.

SANA evolved into SGR, Scientists for Global Responsibility, a great organisation that is still going strong and doing good work.

Nevertheless, it might explain why it took a while for me to realise there was another great elephant in the room – global warming. 

This time, it was Naomi Klein, and specifically her book This Changes Everything which was the kick up *** I needed. I have a signed copy from when she spoke at the Cheltenham Book Festival.

Now I spend a lot of my time in retirement on climate change matters, but focusing my efforts on local community action.

I never lost my love for science, even if things turned out different to my boyhood dreams.

But damn you, nuclear weapons, and damn you fossil fuels, and you, the same old, same old vested-interest apologists.

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Angry Weather

Dr Fredi Otto is the Acting Director of the Environmental Change institute and an Associate Professor in the Global Climate Science Programme where she leads several projects understanding the impacts of man-made climate change on natural and social systems with a particular focus on Africa and India.

Her new book, Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change published by Greystone Books is due out on 17th September in the UK (and 2 days earlier in USA), and I for one, can’t wait to read it.

She was interviewed about the book in The New Scientist

Credit: Rocio Montoya

Here’s a short review by Kirkus.

The attribution work Dr Fredi Otto has helped pioneer is extremely important and here’s why …

We need to be able to move beyond the general global trends that have tended to dominate the conversation on climate change. These demonstrate beyond doubt that human greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant factor in creating a warmer world, where extreme weather events are an expected outcome.

What has been harder to assess is the ability to pin a particular extreme weather event on man-made global warming.

I am hoping that this book will help me – and maybe you? – on a journey of discovery, to learn more about advances in our understanding of how to make that link (I am ordering my copy through my local bookshop The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, not Amazon, because (a) I support local businesses whenever I can and (b) YLB are just brilliant!)

In a previous era when smoking and lung cancer cases first began to appear in the courts, the tobacco companies would use the defence that nobody could be sure if this or that particular case was due to smoking or would have happened anyway. It was just bad luck!

No matter that the bad luck was rising exponentially amongst smokers.

The fossil fuel companies can and will use the same cynical defence.

Sir Richard Doll and collaborators did pioneering work to demonstrate the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950, using novel statistical methods to overcome the charge that ‘correlation does not mean causation’. In this case it most certainly did. Remember, that this long ago, the underlying biochemical mechanisms were not that well understood, and it was 3 years before we had even the basic structure of DNA established, in that seminal year when I was born 🙂

So, climate attribution science – the ability to pin man-made climate change on particular extreme weather events – is a complete game-changer.

The advantage here is that the underlying physical mechanism are extremely well understood, relying on 200 years of accumulated fundamental science. No need here for any new fundamental physics.

But once again, statistics is the hurdle that must be overcome.

Because while at a global level, the uncertainties as to the human causation for global climate change have now essentially decreased to the point where humanity’s fingerprints are all over man-made global warming, as one gets to smaller and smaller scales, the uncertainties mount up, for quite basic statistical reasons.

Once again, innovations are required in order to demonstrate the link at the level of a Hurricane Sandy, or the recent extreme Australian Fire season.

But imagine the implications of being able to make these connections.

We would then be in a position to hold businesses and politicians to account for their inaction, and put a price on the consequential damage, at least in the narrow sense of the quantifiable impact on property; something they at least understand [1].

As Dr Otto says:

“If governments don’t do their job and don’t do enough to put a stop to climate change, then courts can remind them of their purpose.”

So, far from being about some dry technicalities regarding climate attribution and statistical analysis, this book could become part of the tool-kit of everyone involved in action to limit the extent and severity of man-made global warming.

I really hope it does.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, July 2020

NOTES

[1] It is tragic that we seem – at least in the Anglo-Saxon culture – to put so much more weight on loss of property than loss of habitat or life even, but that bias can be turned to our advantage.

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The Green Electrification Sceptic

I have had a number of conversations over the last few years with friends and associates working in climate and green groups who are sceptical about the focus on electrification in decarbonising our energy. They are, for want of a better phrase, green electrification sceptics. 

They will argue that only massive reductions in the consumption of energy is the way forward, while of course they agree that we should stop using fossil fuels and are not opposed to electrification per se.

They are neither climate deniers nor renewables deniers (those two being birds of a feather). But they do represent a significant strand of opinion that believes the UK electricity grid won’t be able to cope, within the required timescale, with the demands of transport (Electric Vehicles) and heating homes (using Heat Pumps), because of the huge amount of energy we currently use nationally in the form of gasoline and natural gas.

They would instead argue for a modal shift towards walking and cycling, and public transport and – for many homes – deep retrofit. This should be the focus they would argue, instead of trying to do the same things we do today – with all the wasted energy that involves – and try to decarbonise that.

Well, I agree with this sentiment. 

Driving a few miles to a shop to get a loaf of bread when we could have walked or cycled; heating our homes with gas boilers with upstairs windows half open; and all this with no price paid for the damage done by our carbon emissions.

It’s crazy and I agree with that.

However, people do need to move around, and for some in rural areas at least cars are unavoidable, even with improved public services. We certainly should not need 30 million cars in the UK in 2050 or even 2030, but zero is also not the right answer. And we need to heat our homes in winter, and we are not going to apply PassivHaus levels of retrofit to the (according to BRE) 9 million ‘hard to treat’ homes in the UK – at least on that timescale. We need a plan, and the numbers that back up the plan must have a sound basis.

This is where I want to challenge green electrification sceptics, because I see a tendency to bolster their arguments with information that doesn’t stack up. This helps no one, because it doesn’t get us to a realistic plan we can all work towards. And we need to scale up whatever we do pretty damn quick, with solutions that we already have to hand (techno-futurism is a tactic used by the denialists to delay action, and we shouldn’t fall for it).

A Typical Argument

The following figure is from the July 2017 issue of Energy Consumption In the UK from BEIS, and used for illustrative purposes only. 

BEIS 2016 energy equivalents

Electricity in 2016 was about 20,000 ktoe (Kilotonnes of oil equivalent – a unit of energy) and (natural) gas plus petroleum was about 150,000 ktoe. 

So, the argument goes, we’d need to increase the electricity energy generated by at least 7 times to displace the gas and petroleum, and this doesn’t sound feasible by 2050 let alone 2030 (the date that many local authorities in UK are committing to getting to net zero in these sectors). 

My Response

The basic issue here is confusing primary energy, shown on this graph, with delivered energy, and this overstates the amount of electricity that would need to be generated to displace the fossil fuels shown.

‘Primary energy equivalents’ includes not only the delivered energy, but any energy lost as part of the transformation from one form (e.g. gas) to another form (e.g. electricity) of energy. 

But there are other factors to take into account when considering the feasibility of electrifying transport and heat. I have listed them here, and they fundamentally change the basis for any debate regarding the electrification  of transport and heat in the next few decades:

  1. Primary energy equivalents: For fossil fuels these shouldn’t be used as measures of the energy required in a transformed system, without appropriate adjustments.
  2. End-Use efficiency factors: Inefficiencies of internal combustion engine (30% efficient) compared to a EV (90% efficient); see Note 1.  Heat Pump (typically 300% efficient) is also at least 3 times as efficient as a gas boiler (90%), again meaning a reduced demand to do the same job; see Note 2.
  3. Modal changes: By doing more to get people out of cars (as the new Decarbonising Transport report from UK Gov’t calls for) – walking, cycling and more use of public transport – we can reduce energy required for travel.  Reduced consumption and electrification are not mutually exclusive..
  4. Smoothing / lowering peak demand: On the consumption side at grid scale, there is lots that can be done to lower and smooth demand. For EVs, smart charging means we can eliminate large peaks in demand. For buildings, off-peak water heating means less wind turbines to do the same job.
  5. Energy storage / flexibility: Comes in many forms, including electrical (batteries), thermal mass (e.g. hot water tanks), pumped storage, etc. – EV cars can become part of the solution, rather than the problem, by helping to build a flexible and adaptive network at local and national scales.

These factors together mean that instead of 7 times more electricity energy per year for a future UK it would be much less than this. Even if we carry on doing more or less the same things, it would be 2.7 times more according to David Mackay (see Note 3). 

If we adopted the level of modal shift and retrofit proposed in the Centre for Alternative Technology’s ZCB scenario (Zero Carbon Britain), then we could reduce annual demand for energy by 60%, including an 80% reduction in the energy required for all forms of transport (cars, buses, planes, etc.) (see Note 4).

With Covid-19, but even before, there were many questioning why someone needs to do a 100 mile round trip for a 40 minute meeting. The digitisation of many sectors of the economy can make a big dent in the need for journeys – by any means – in the future.

And on heating our homes we can reduce our energy demand by 75%. I’ll let David Mackay do the talking (p. 153):

… can we reduce the energy we consume for heating? Yes. Can we get off fossil fuels at the same time? Yes. Not forgetting the low-hanging fruit – building-insulation and thermostat shenanigans – we should replace all our fossil-fuel heaters with electric-powered heat pumps; we can reduce the energy required to 25% of today’s levels. Of course this plan for electrification would require more electricity. But even if the extra electricity came from gas-fired power stations, that would still be a much better way to get heating than what we do today, simply setting fire to the gas. Heat pumps are future-proof, allowing us to heat buildings efficiently with electricity from any source.

Further thoughts on EVs

At this point, the Green Electrification Sceptic might say…

Ok, I see what you’re saying, but charging all the cars (that will remain at current levels for some time) is still going to need a massive increase in generating capacity, to deal with the peak load

This was essentially the argument given by an article in The Times (Graeme Paton (11th February 2017) ‘Electric cars mean UK could need 20 new nuclear plants’). 

The flaw in this argument rests on the assumptions that everyone is charging at the same time, but in reality the load can be spread, lowering the peak demand. Nationally, 73% of cars are garaged or parked on private property overnight, according to RAC Foundation. Utilities are offering deals to help them to do smart management of the grid, offering customers some perks for signing up to these win-win deals. You just tell the service provider via your charging App you want to be charged by 7.30am tomorrow morning and the software decides when to schedule you. So the peak demand will be considerably less as a result, and in fact, EVs with their batteries then become part of the solution, rather than the problem. And the charging infrastructure need not be the hurdle many assume it to be with most charging occurring at home. EVs will actually help create the flexible and adaptive grid we need in the move to renewables.

A McKinsey report on The potential impact of electric vehicles on global energy systems, concludes that the expected uptake of EVs globally is entirely manageable, assuming the relatively simple measures such as load shifting and smart charging we have discussed are deployed.

However, as a society we are still too obsessed with cars. Fetishising cars needs to end. A large EV SUV is still using a lot more resources and energy than would be needed by someone able to use regular and affordable public transport (say an EV bus), or a bike (electric or not). There is an issue of fairness at work here too, for the many people who cannot afford an EV, even a small, less resource hungry one.

Having an expensive EV car sitting mostly idle is not a great solution either, because it fails to maximise use of resources. 

In the future, people imagine autonomous vehicles which would remove the need to even own a car, and instead we would have a ‘car as a service’ via an App on your phone, which could mean we need many fewer vehicles (but maximising their usage) to cover the same miles required (the cynic might say “isn’t that a taxi?” – yeh, but minus the human driver). 

For cities, it is already questionable whether people need a car; many don’t bother because of the hassle. 

This not the case in the rural setting, so car ownership will not end anytime soon, but we need to have a major investment in public transport, cycle lanes, and cycle infrastructure in general – and policy measures like dynamic road pricing – to nudge people out of cars, as part of a comprehensive approach to decarbonising mobility and transport.

Further thoughts on Heat Pumps

Gas boilers and a lack of any charging for the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions have encouraged a culture of flagrant wastage of energy in the UK. Someone with a house with a 6kW heat loss might typically have a 20kW gas boiler, so it can be heated in no time, even while windows are left open! 

This is our instant gratification – ‘I want it now’ – culture. 

There is no imperative to insulate the home because of artificially low gas prices (which of course will sky rocket in the future, just you wait and see).

It is the kind of attitude that ensures that when heat pumps are installed to replace gas boilers without any serious attempt to educate and monitor behaviour, the nameplate performance will be ruined by people continuing to try to heat the town as well as their homes, or oversize the heat pump and also end up killing its measured coefficient of performance (COP).

David Mackay wrote the following about heat pumps in 2009 (p.151) (see Note 5):

Let me spell this out. Heat pumps are superior in efficiency to condensing boilers, even if the heat pumps are powered by electricity from a power station burning natural gas. If you want to heat lots of buildings using natural gas, you could install condensing boilers, which are “90% efficient,” or you could send the same gas to a new gas power station making

electricity and install electricity-powered heat pumps in all the buildings; the second solution’s efficiency would be somewhere between 140% and 185%. It’s not necessary to dig big holes in the garden and install underfloor heating to get the benefits of heat pumps; the best air-source heat pumps (which require just a small external box, like an air-conditioner’s) can deliver hot water to normal radiators with a coefficient of performance above 3.

But people still seem to think it’s magic, and myths abound around heat pumps and especially Air-Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) …

… they don’t work on older, larger homes

… they don’t perform well in cold spells

… they are really noisy

… you’ll need deep retrofit to Passivhaus levels to make it worthwhile

All untrue. But people have had bad experiences due to a combination of poor assessments, poor installation and tuning, and poor operation. 

The more insidious issue with heat pumps is that people think it’s magic that you can apparently heat a house with cold water or air. The BBC’s record on reporting heat pumps is dismal (see Note 6).

Now, because only a minority or householders have a water or ground source sufficient to heat their homes, so the assumptions is that we would expect the great majority of homes to use air-source heat pumps (ASHPs).

The ‘Green Electrification Sceptic’ will say they understand how heat pumps work, but then repeat some of the myths around ASHPs and say that the Seasonal Coefficient Of Performance (SCOP) – the COP averaged over the year – is not the oft quoted 2.5 for ASHPs, but 2 or even lower. What I think this reflects is bad experiences based on poorly installed or operated systems. This bad experience – in some cases dating back years – is being used as a reason to reject ASHPs.

I attended an excellent webinar hosted by Carbon Coop from Paul Kenny, former CEO of the Tipperary Energy Agency who conducted a pilot, including many homes (working with the Limerick Institute of Technology to assess the results).  The video recording is here  and his slides are here. These were all ASHP installations.

During a period of October 2017 and May 2018 the overall COP ranged from about 2.6 to 3.6 and averaged 3.1, pre-optimisation. During an exceptionally cold 2 week period, where external temperatures were down to minus 6oC, the COP was never below 2.5 and ranged from 2.5 to 3.

Key points to note:

  • They did necessary and sufficient retrofit but not to a Passivhaus standard.
  • There was no external wall insulation, for example.
  • They did not upgrade 2 panel radiators to 3 panels. They did pragmatic emitter upgrades.
  • When asked whether it was worth going for a Ground-Source Heat Pump (GSHP) because of extra nameplate SCOP, Paul Kenny said no, because if one has some extra money, they should spend them on upgrading emitters (e.g. get those 3 panel radiators), and you can close the performance gap without the disruption of digging up an area of garden (assuming one has that option, which many won’t have).

It is a very positive story of how to make ASHPs successful (and, btw, Carbon Coop are a great source of material, sharing real-world experiences of whole house retrofit).

He does caution that one needs a properly qualified assessment done, and ‘sufficient’ remedial retrofit is obviously required. But properly sized and installed, there are really no issues using the approach they have now refined. Every house is different, but the ingredients are the same.

He cautions also against oversizing a heat pump (and I think the combination of EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) and RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) may push this outcome sometimes, by being pessimistic about the achievable SCOP), because then they may well be kicking in and out of operation, and this will kill their measured COP.

Increasingly we are seeing ASHP and PV combos (see some examples from Yorkshire Energy Systems here) because, while the peak need for heat and minimum for solar PV coincide in the year – hardly ideal – the ‘shoulder seasons’ (Spring and Autumn) do provide significant benefits, and some households are finding the net cost of operation competitive with gas. When, finally, gas attracts the level of carbon tax it deserves, it will make it easy for ASHPs to compete on a level playing field in price terms.

Final Thoughts

I support the call for reduced consumption in all its forms, and it should be encouraged as much as possible, but this is not mutually exclusive with electrifying transport and heat. On the contrary, electrification helps in this endeavour, because of increased efficiency and flexibility. But it needs to be coupled with approaches that ensure  fair access and market reforms.

We need to acknowledge the issues hitherto in increasing the skills base for retrofit and renewable heat, and improving the quality of installs, but that is not a good argument for dismissing heat pumps. It’s an argument for a major push on the required training and quality systems, something the Government has lamentably failed to prioritise.

As CAT ZCB says, we need to ‘power down’ (stop wasting energy, use it more efficiently, and change some behaviours and norms), but then ‘power up’. The power up bit requires a lot electricity from renewable capacity, and a fair amount of storage too. They have a plan we can get behind.

Currently, the UK Government does not have a coherent plan across all sectors, but whatever plan we decide to finally put some real effort into, it needs to be one that stacks up.

And for those that claim that the CAT ZCB models and assumptions are optimistic, it is worth looking at others who are independently modelling the transition, and are optimistic about our ability to decarbonise the grid in relatively short timescales (see this commentary on a Colorado study).

As the sadly departed David Mackay said, he was not biased in favour of any one solution, but was in favour of maths. We all need to be fans of maths, and be clear about our assumptions, when conceiving and debating options.

Ultimately, electricity is a great democratiser of energy.  Generation is de-coupled from consumption in a way that was not (and never can be) true for fossil fuels used for cars or heating homes.

If you consume electricity in a light bulb, EV car, heat pump, fridge or lawn mower, you can take the renewable energy from any source – a wind turbine array in the North Sea, or a community energy scheme, or the solar PV on your house. All powered ultimately by the sun.

It is not surprising that those who have controlled the energy supply chains – from exploration and production to the petrol station forecourt or gas metre at your home – are putting up a fight to retain control, including greenwashing galore, and fake green gases, with the help of lobby groups and big marketing budgets, which is nothing to do with finding the right solution for consumers or the planet (as the dash for methane gets marketed as a dash for Hydrogen).

What is more surprising is that greens do not always appreciate the importance of electrification to both the decarbonisation and democratisation of energy.

It’s time they did.

(c ) Richard W. Erskine, 22nd July 2020

NOTES

NOTE 1 – EV efficiency compared to Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)

EVs are about 90% efficient (so for every 1kWh of energy in its battery,  an EV will use 0.9 kWh to do work), whereas the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is typically around 30% efficient (so for every 1kWh of potential energy in the fuel, only 0.3kWh will do any work). That is a relative efficiency of 3 to 1 (in both cases excluding the energy losses between the engine and moving wheel).

Another way to calculate it is to take a figure of 60 mpg figure for a petrol car, and using a figure of about 30 kWh per gallon, that equates to approximately 2 miles per kWh of primary energy for a petrol car. Whereas, this source indicated 41 kWh battery capacity for a Cleo with a range of 250 miles, this is (250/40) approximately 6 miles per kWh. So, again, a relative efficiency of 3 to 1 in switching to a similar sized EV car.

NOTE 2 – Unravelling hydrogen hype 

David Mackay said in Sustainable Energy – without the hot air p. 129: 

Hydrogen is not a miraculous source of energy; it’s just an energy carrier, like a rechargeable battery. And it is a rather inefficient energy carrier, with a whole bunch of practical defects.

Cars

A hydrogen cell car is about 40% efficient in its end-use of energy, whereas an EV is 90% efficient. If it is ‘green hydrogen’ created from a wind turbine through electrolysis, the overall efficiency for the hydrogen cell car is roughly 50% * 40% = 20%. Whereas for the EV it is 90% efficient (in both cases ignoring relatively minor network losses – for gas or electricity – and in both cases excluding the energy losses between the engine and moving wheel).

20% versus 90% is not a great look for hydrogen cell cars, and would mean (9/2 =) 4.5 times as many wind turbines to support the same level of green mileage by UK drivers.

Heat

And if hydrogen is a poor choice for cars, then providing ‘low temperature’ heat for homes is a little crazy in my view. Whatever hydrogen we do produce needs to be reserved for high temperature industrial applications.

In Getting off gas: future risks for energy poor households (15th July 2020) Louise Sunderland wrote

But fossil gas is not the fuel of 2050. Hydrogen appears to be waiting in the wings to replace fossil gas in the grid. However, hydrogen is unlikely to be available in large quantities across Europe for home heating, as the available hydrogen goes first to those uses that rely on high temperature heat – which hydrogen can produce but electricity cannot. In the various 2030 and 2050 European decarbonisation scenarios, hydrogen for use in buildings is almost absent in 2030 and provides a small share of energy consumption in only some 2050 scenarios.

Importantly, projections show hydrogen will likely be significantly more expensive than a heat pump for home heating, and adapting to hydrogen will require upgrades of both the grid and home heating systems.

The availability and cost of hydrogen for domestic heat are at best uncertain. If low-income households are disproportionately reliant on gas, they will pay higher costs for infrastructure and be open to the uncertainty and price shocks of replacement fuels. 

Sourcing Hydrogen

An important question is: where would the energy come from to manufacture the hydrogen? Fossil fuel companies would love that we continue to source it from methane (currently 95% of hydrogen is produced this way), but a by-product is carbon dioxide, and then you have to believe it can be successfully buried using ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS). Yet CCS is unproven at the scale needed, and the timescales require urgent action. So the full supply chain for hydrogen today is far from green. And then there is the cost of storing this gas, and the infrastructure.

A study done for the Climate Change Committee in Analysis on abating direct emissions from ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ homes (Element Energy & UCL) , July 2020 looked at different scenarios. Interestingly it seems that for those scnearios involving hydrogen, the (probably prohibitive) costs of CCS and the storage off hydrogen are not included in their comparative cost analysis (because of their uncertainties). Whereas the oft stated hurdles for using widespread adoption of heat pumps such as developing the supply chain and raising the skills (relatively trivial things to fix) are highlighted ad nauseum.

But these hurdles could be addressed tomorrow, with an appropriate push from Government (e.g. legislating for air-source heat pumps for all new builds and post-build energy performance certification; and no gas connection). This would force the laggardly big boys in construction to institute the training required and pump-prime the supply chain. It ain’t rocket science. The UK Treasury need to end the short-sightedness that killed the zero carbon homes plan and the Government should tell the UK’s largest house builder to pull their fingers out!

Other ways of producing hydrogen exist, one of the most talked about is by electrolysis using excess energy from renewables, producing so called ‘green hydrogen’, but that these will never be greater than 100% (and electrolysis is around 50% efficient), so can never compensate for the lower of efficiency of hydrogen-cell cars when compared with EVs. 

And as Tom Baxter says in The Conversation, Hydrogen isn’t the key to Britain’s green recovery – here’s why

Much of my 45-year career in industry and academia has been spent studying energy efficiency and power production and supply. I believe that hydrogen has a limited role in decarbonisation, and that businesses with a vested interest in promoting hydrogen are doing so at the expense of British consumers.

Michael Liebreich has written on the economics of hydrogen in Separating Hype from Hydrogen, both on the Supply Side and Demand Side.

He has also published a Hydrogen ‘Use Case Ladder’ showing which applications of hydrogen make sense and which don’t. Cars and Heating are in the ‘don’t make sense’ section of the ladder (see NOTE 7).

Now, new research on the full life-cycle of ‘Blue Hydrogen’ shows it is anything but low carbon.

Hydrogen will play an important role in industry, and on the electricity power grid, providing a form of stored energy that addresses need to balance generation and demand over longer periods. Michael Liebrich shared a figure – the hydrogen use ladder – showing where hydrogen can/ should be used, and where it shouldn’t:

 

Whichever way you look at it, the hype around hydrogen around transport and heat is overblown.

Synth Gas

Nevertheless, there will need to be a role for synthetic gas – hydrogen or others – as an energy carrier and/or storage medium. 

The CAT ZCB report includes a significant role for synth methane for energy storage and backup. Their argument being that they can leverage existing gas infrastructure for backup power generation, for example, using truly green synth gas (so no CCS required).

Chemical storage is an important potential complement to gravitational (pumped storage, hydraulic storage) and battery storage, because it can be inter-seasonal in scope. But each must be judged according to its qualities (cost, carbon intensity, capacity, latency, storage, transmission, etc.).

Imagine arrays of solar PV in the Sahara generating electricity; how do you get that energy to where it is needed (Africa and Europe, say)? It could be via an electricity distribution network, but could also be by producing synthetic gas, and transporting that gas via pipelines. If the gas is easy to liquify (as Ammonia is), other options are possible. Instead of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar, we could have liquified renewable sunshine from Australia, which could become a leading post-coal energy exporter, with the help of Ammonia.

Conclusion

Ultimately, though, electricity is a great democratiser of energy, when freed from fossil fuels in its generation. Heat Pumps can get their electricity from any low carbon source and so, as David Mackay said, are future proofed.

NOTE 3 – Sustainable Energy without the hot air (2009), David Mackay

This book, available online, should be required reading for anyone who wants to discuss how to decarbonise a country’s energy supply and usage, not because it was the final answer on any scenario (nor claimed to be), but for its approach, which was to provide a tool kit for thinking about energy; to increase our energy literacy. The kiloWatthour (kWh) is a usefully sized unit of energy employed throughout the book, and also one that appears on our utility bills. A kWh per person per day (kWh/p/d) is a measure that makes it simple to assess our average consumption, and compare different options.

Mackay showed how energy consumption in UK would drop purely through electrification (assuming we still do more or less the same things), and since fossil fuels would be displaced by electricity generated without fossil fuels, we would eliminate most of the carbon emissions, but of course, the electricity generation would need to increase in the process (Mackay said that 18kWh/p/d should rise to 48kWh/p/d, or an increase by a factor of about 2.7, or an additional 170% electricity capacity) – See Figure 27.1 on p.204:

Mackay electrification

NOTE 4 – Centre for Alternative Technology’s scenario

 In Zero Carbon Britain: Rising to the challenge (2019), by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) a breakdown is provided of the 2017 energy supply and consumption for UK as follows: 

ZCB UK energy 2017

Inefficiencies exist in the combustion of fossil fuels to produce useful ‘work’, but also in different end-use settings, such as electrical white goods (e.g. fridges) and lighting.

There are also reductions in demand possible by changing some of the things we do today, such as increasing the use of walking, cycling and public transport compared to car use, for example. Taking all those into account, CAT propose a 60% reduction in demand in their ZCB scenario: 

ZCB 60% reduction

How is demand reduced? For homes, it is a combination of retrofit and smart controls: 

ZCB home heat performance

For transport it is mainly through reductions in car use and electrification of transport 

ZCB transport 1

Leading to a very large reduction in transport energy demand …

ZCB transport 2

 NOTE 5 – Net efficiency illustration

In this quote from Mackay, he mentions a net efficiency of using gas to electrify heating, based on a Figure provided on page 150. I will do a simple calculation to illustrate a net performance figure. Mackay used a figure of 53% efficiency for gas powered electricity generator (top of line at the time of Mackay’s book) and an 8% transmission loss (92% transmissions efficiency); and an ASHP between COP of 3 – at the lower end of modern ASHPs – and 4.  The overall efficiency would be in the range between 0.53 * 0.92 * 3.0 = 1.46 and 0.53 * 0.92 * 4.0 = 1.95, that is, between 146% and 195% efficiency.  Mackay uses the range 140% to 185% in the quotation. The point being that any of these figures is much greater than the 90% efficiency from sending the gas to a boiler in the home to provide heating.

NOTE 6 – Heat Pumps are an old idea and not magic

By the mid 19th Century heat was understood as the jostling of atoms – the ‘kinetic theory of heat’ as pioneered by Maxwell and Boltzmann. The greater the temperature above absolute zero (0 Kelvin or -273.15 Centigrade) the greater the average velocity of molecules. A sea of water at 5oC contains a huge amount of thermal energy. We should be careful not to confuse the temperature of a body with its energy content! The energy content will be a function of the temperature and volume of the body of water (the same principle applies to a body of air). With a large enough volume, the temperature becomes relatively less important; there will still be plenty of energy to harvest.

The genesis of the heat pump dates back to the early-mid 19th Century, but the first water-sourced one was installed in Switzerland in 1912. Heat pumps are neither new nor extraordinary.

There is no magic. Heat pumps harvest the ambient heat (which can be in the air, ground or water) that ultimately derives its energy from the Sun. This is done through a process that is like a reverse fridge, but in this case moving heat from the outside (often at a relatively low temperature) to the inside (at a relatively higher temperature), with the help of a refrigerant medium and a pump and compressor. No magic is required, just a little A-level physics. 

Typically, if a heat pump uses one unit of electrical energy to drive the system it produces three units of heat. This equates to a 3/1 = 3 efficiency factor, or 300%. 

Roger Harrabin, is the BBC’s Energy and Environment Analyst. This is what he said in a report on a water-source heat pump installed to heat the historic house of Plas Newydd in Wales (science facepalm warning):

It’s barely believable that this sea water has enough heat to warm anything, it’s pretty chilly at this time of year, but yet, thanks to an extraordinary technology called a heat exchanger, it’s the sea that’s going to heat this house.

It is incredible but true that a BBC energy correspondent appears to not understand the distinction between the temperature of a body of water and its thermal energy content, and believes the technology is novel and new. This is not the only report he has made on heat pumps that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of how they work. 

The gas network lobbyists championing allegedly sustainable gas in various forms must absolutely love Roger.

NOTE 7 – The Use Case Ladder for Hydrogen

… o o O o o …

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UK Covid-19 Testing Figures Untrustworthy

BBC’s More of Less is a real gem, shining a light on numbers bandied about in the news.

Today’s episode again discussed the UK Government’s Covid-19 testing claims.

It demonstrated to me quite clearly why we cannot trust the numbers being presented by the Government (Govt).

I have listened to the extremely informative 5.5 minute segment of More or Less (MoL) covering this topic – from just after 8’30” into the programme to about 14’ in – and taken some notes that I thought were worth sharing:

  • On Sunday 10th May Boris Johnson said

“we must have a world beating system for testing potential victims and for tracing their contacts, so that all told, we’re testing literally hundreds of thousands of people every day”

  • Matt Hancock has tweeted again on Monday 11th May, claiming “100,490 tests yesterday” (i.e. Sunday)
  • MoL have concluded that the Govt did not reach or surpass the 100,000 target.
  • Matt Hancock’s figure included 28,000 samples put in the post that day, but yet to be tested.
  • Actual tests conducted, that produce results, are “a long way” from reaching its target of 100,000 (let alone “ramping it up”), according to MoL.
  • Even by it’s own “somewhat questionable figures”, the Govt has only reached its target twice in May, and MoL don’t think they have ever reached it.
  • Govt has not acknowledged that a sample in the post is not equivalent to a test completed.
  • Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK’s Statistics Authority, wrote to the Health Secretary asking that he shows more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported, to “support trustworthiness”.  Ouch!
  • The Govt won’t publish the actual number of completed tests (positive or negative) from postal samples. Instead they simply add the number of positive tests to the daily number of confirmed cases. Their ‘excuse’ being that they wanted to avoid double counting [my comment: as though this is not possible by other means in this day and age!].
  • MoL have no ideas on the actual number of postal tests being carried out, despite repeated attempts to find out.
  • It is not just the postal tests that are causing confusion.  
  • Since the middle of April, the Govt’s testing data have included tests from other organisations, such as Universities, and their’s are not just swab tests but antibody tests that can show who has had the virus in the past. They are doing this to look at the prevalence of the virus and to answer other research questions, such as how accurate the home testing kits are.
  • The Govt say that because the research tests are not for diagnostic purposes they are not included in the daily count of people who are tested. Yet, this week more than 17,500 of these tests are included in the number of tests completed!

“It’s almost as if they don’t care if the number of tests figure is consistent or indeed accurate, as long as it’s big” (Tim Harford, MoL Presenter)

  • This leads to another issue. The number of tests carried out is not the same as the number of people tested!
  • Now, of course, some individuals may be tested multiple times so we would expect the number of people tested to be lower than the number of tests [my comment: I would say clearly over a period of a week say, for medical staff, but for the general public? surely not].
  • But recall Boris Johnson talked of “hundreds of thousands of people every day”.
  • On May 10th, almost 70,000 tests were actually carried out (not including the number for those postal tests samples put in the post that day), but the number of people actually tested was 37,000 (as MoL gleaned from Department of Health (DoH) data).
  • This is roughly 2 tests per person each day.
  • MoL have asked the DoH for an explanation “but they haven’t got back to us” yet.
  • MoL are not sure what could be the issue, but wondered if there is an error in the collating and labelling of data. They will keep trying to get an explanation.
  • <End of Notes>

After listening to this MoL episode, I was discussing it with my ex-nurse wife who suggested “maybe they are using two swabs”. Duh, of course.

Is this the simple explanation we need? So, I tried to find out what happens at test centres.

The Govt YouTube video on the test centre process (viewed by only about 100,000 people) doesn’t mention 2 swabs; and implies just one.

Then I found Jack Slater’s piece in the METRO (Sunday 15th March 2020)

“One swab will be put in the back of your throat, and another will be placed inside both nostrils.”

So 2 tests are done for each 1 tested person, at least at some test centres; possibly all.

My cynical thought was then: is there some creative ambiguity going on in not distinguishing ‘tests’ from ‘people’. I tend to prefer the cock-up theory of history, but who knows?

Thank you More or Less for again offering a clear interrogation of the Government’s claims on testing.

I would conclude that the Government is in a complete shambles with respect to simply counting the number of actual tests carried out per day, and also, the number of people tested (whose sample or samples have been tested on said day); and clearly distinguishing these numbers.

Unless the Government can demonstrate clarity and accuracy in its presentation of the testing numbers, how can we trust it to implement a coherent strategy to achieve a “world beating system for testing potential victims and for tracing their contacts”?

Or even, how can it execute its basic job of protecting the public?

Currently, one has to conclude that the UK Government’s Covid-19 testing figures are untrustworthy.

(c) Richard W. Erskine

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Following the science: what should that mean?

Following the science and politics

The ‘science’ represents the evidence, the ‘Is’, but we need values, the ‘Should’ to arrive at what’s possible, the ‘Can’, and then leadership, capabilties and capacity to turn that into action, the ‘Will’. Only when the plans are executed is it ‘Done’. The refinement loops come from ‘measure effectivity’ and ‘weigh opinion’, and there will always be a tension – sometimes a conflict – between these.

 

It has been a mantra repeated every day at the UK Government’s Covid-19 press briefing that they are following, or are guided by the science.

What does this mean or what should it mean?

Winston Churchill famously said that scientists should be on tap, but not on top. 

This meant, of course, that politicians should be the ones on top. 

Scientists can present the known facts, and even reasonable assessments of those aspects of a problem that are understood in principle or to some level, but for which there remain a range of uncertainties (due to incomplete data or immature science). As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Science navigates these three domains.

Yet, it is the values and biases, from whatever colour of leadership is in charge, that will ultimately drive a political judgment, even while it may be cognisant of the evidence. The science will constrain the range of options available to an administration that respects the science, but this may be quite a wide range of options. 

For example, in the face of man-made global warming, a Government can opt for a high level of renewables, or for nuclear power, or for a radical de-growth circular economy; or something else. The science is agnostic to these political choices.

The buck really does stop with the politicians in charge to make those judgments; they are “on top”, after all.

So the repeated mantra that they are “following the science” is rather anti-Churchillian in its messaging.

If instead, Ministers said, “we have considered the scientific advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, based on discussions of a broad range of scientific evidence and opinion represented on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and supporting evidence, and have decided that the actions required at this stage are as follows …”, then that would be correct and honest. 

And even if they could not repeat such a wordy qualification at every press conference it would be like a proverbial Health Warning – available on Government websites – like on a cigarette packet, useful for anyone who feels brave enough to start smoking the daily propaganda on how brilliant the UK is in its response to Covid-19 (which, despite a lot of attacks on it, has not been as bad as some make out, and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) have rightly gained a lot of credibility during the crisis).

The uncomfortable truth is that ‘following the science’ is about proaction not reaction; about listening to a foretold risk years in advance and taking timely and substantive actions – through policies, legislation, projects, etc. – to mitigate against or build resilience in the face of known risks.

Pandemics of either a flu variety or novel virus kind have been at the top of the UK’s national risk assessment for a decade. Both SARS and MERS were warnings that South Korea took seriously to increase their preparedness. The UK was also warned by its scientists to be prepared. The UK Government under different PMs has failed to take the steps required.

Listening to the science in the midst of a pandemic is good, but doing so well in advance of one, and taking appropriate action is a whole lot better. Prevention is better than cure, is a well known and telling adage.

Of course, the naysayers will come out in force. If one responds to dodgy code prior to 2000 and nothing bad happens, they will say that the Y2K bug was a sham, an example of alarmism “gone mad”; they will not acknowledge the work done to prevent the worst outcomes. Similarly, if we mothball capacity for a pandemic, then once again, expect the charge of alarmism and “why so many empty beds?”.

Our economy is very efficient when things are going well – just-in-time manufacture, highly tuned supply chains, minimal redundancy, etc. – but not so great when shocks come, and we discover that the UK cannot make PPE (personal protective equipment) for our health and care workers and we rely on cheap off-shored manufacturing, and have failed to create sufficient stocks (as advised by scientists to do so).

Following the science is not something you do on a Monday. You do it all week, and then you act on it; and you do this for risks that are possibly years or decades in the future. You also have to be honest about the value-based choices you make in arriving at decisions and not to hide being the science.

Scientists don’t argue about the knowns: the second law of thermodynamics, or that an R value greater than 1 means exponential growth in the spread of a virus. But scientists will argue a great deal about the boundary between the known and unknown, or the barely known; it’s in their nature. Science is not monolithic. SAGE represents many sciences, not ‘the’ science.

For Covid-19 or any virus, “herd immunity” is only really relevant to the situation where a vaccine is developed and applied to the great majority of the population (typically greater than 85%), with a designed-in strong immunity response. Whereas immunity resulting from having been naturally infected is a far less certain outcome (particularly for Coronaviruses, where there is typically a weak immune response).

So, relying on uncontrolled infection as a basis for herd immunity would be naive at best. It is true that it was discussed by SAGE as a potential outcome, but not as the core strategy (as Laurence Freedman discussed here); the goal was always to flatten the curve, even if there was great debate about the best way to achieve this.

One of the problems with the failure to be open about that debate and the weighing of factors is that it leaves room for speculation as to motives, and social media has been awash with talk of a callous Government more interested in saving the economy than in saving lives. I am no fan of this Government or its PM, but I feel this episode demonstrates the lack of trust it has with the general public, a trust that Boris Johnson failed to earn, and is now paying the price in the lack of trust in his Government’s pronouncements.

Yet I do have confidence in the CSA and CMO. They are doing a really tough job, keeping the scientific advice ‘on tap’. They cannot be held responsible for the often cack-handed communications from Ministers, and failure to be straight about PPE supplies and the like.

Some people have criticised the make up of SAGE – for example, because it has too many modellers and no immunologists and no virologists. I don’t understand the lack of immunologists.

Virologists are clearly key for the medium-long term response, but a vaccine is probably over a year away before it could be deployed. So, at the moment, containment of the spread ‘is’ the Emergency, and social distancing, hand-washing, isolation, hospitals, testing, etc. are the tools at hand, and it might be defendable that they are not currently the focus of the discussion.

Groups at Oxford University and Imperial College are being funded to help develop vaccines and to run clinical trials. Virology is not being ignored and it is rather odd to suggest otherwise.  But again, transparency should be the order of the day – transparency on who is invited onto SAGE, when and why, and transparency on the evidence they receive or consider. But having a camera in there broadcasting live discussions may inhibit frank debate, so is probably not a great idea, but the Minutes do need to be published, so other experts can scrutinise the thought processes of the group.

The reason why Dominic Cummings (or any other political role) should not be sitting on SAGE, in my view – even if they make no contribution to the discussion – is that there is a risk (a certainty, probably) that he then provides a backdoor summary of the discussions to the Prime Minister, which may conflict with that provided by the CSA. It is the CSA’s job to summarise the conclusions of the discussion and debate at SAGE and provide clear advice, that the Government can then consider and act on. The political advisers and politicians will have plenty of opportunity to add their spin after receiving the scientific advice; not during its formation or communication.

Now, it seems, everyone agrees that testing and contact tracing will be key tools in ending or reducing the lock down, but of course, that means having the systems in place to implement such a strategy. We don’t yet have these.

The British Army, I understand, don’t use the term “lessons learned”, because it is so vacuous. We have “lessons learned” after every child abuse scandal and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. 

A lesson truly learned is one that does not need that label – it is a change to the systems, processes, etc., that ensures a systemic response. This results in consistently different outcomes. It is not a bolt on to the system but a change in the system.

Covid-19 asks lots of questions not just about our clinical preparedness but the fairness of our systems to safeguard the most vulnerable.

Like a new pandemic, the threats from global warming have also been foretold by scientists for decades now, and UK politicians claim to be listening to the science, but they are similarly not acting in a way that suggests they are actually hearing the science.

As with Covid-19, man-made global warming has certainties and uncertainties. It is certain that the more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere the warmer the world will get, and the greater the chance of weather extremes of all kinds. But, for example, exactly how much of Greenland will melt by 2100 is an on-going research question.

Do the uncertainties prevent us taking proactive action?

No, they shouldn’t, and a true political leader would take the steps to both reduce the likely size of impacts (mitigations), and increase the ability of society to withstand the unavoidable impacts (adaptation), to increase resilience.

The models are never perfect but they provide a crucial tool in risk management, to be able to pose ‘what if’ type questions and explore the range of likely outcomes (I have written In Praise of Computer Models before).

Following the science (or more correctly, the sciences) should be a full-time job for any Government, and a wise one would do well to listen hard well in advance of having to respond to an emergency, to engage and consult on its plans, and to build trust with its populace.

Boris Johnson and his Government need to demonstrate that it has a plan, and seeks support for what it aims to do, both in terms of prevention and reaction. It needs to do that not just for the Covid-19 crisis, but for the array of emerging crises that result from man-made global warming.

We need to change the system, before the worst impacts are felt.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020.

 

FOOTNOTE – Sir Mark Walport and John Ziman – on science policy and advice

I listened to Sir Mark Walport a few years ago in a conversation about the role of Chief Scientific Adviser (a post he has held), which was very interesting

“ON STANDING FOR SCIENCE AND WHERE SCIENCE FITS IN POLICY”, SIR MARK WALPORT, Science Soapbox,

http://www.sciencesoapbox.org/sir-mark-walport/

[This episode was recorded on July 21, 2016 in front of a live audience at Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University.]

He said that any policy must look at a problem through 3 different lenses:
– Evidence lens
– Deliverability lens
– Values lens

and that science can only help with the first of these.

He made the point that trust in science is very context specific: Science can say anything about the Higgs Boson and be believed, but on an issue like embryology, values kick in and there will be much less trust.

He also makes a strong distinction between ‘pollable’ questions and non-pollable questions. I will give examples.

“does extra CO₂ in the atmosphere lead to increased global warming?” is a non-pollable questions (the unequivocal answer is: yes); whereas “should UK focus on renewables or nuclear power to decarbonise the grid?” is a pollable question (answer: Brits much prefer renewables, by a wide margin).

Scientists need a special range of skills to be able to do the advice job, above and beyond their scientific skills. John Ziman explored the differences between scientific discourse and political debate in his paper (2000) “Are debatable scienti􏰜fic questions debatable?”

Click to access Ziman.pdf

He explains how complex most scientific questions are, with rarely a simple resolution, and conducted in a way quite different to political debate (yet no less argumentative!). The two styles sit awkwardly together.

Yet public and political discourse (especially on social media, but in newsprint, and parliament too) often expects a binary answer: yes or no, right or wrong. Shades of grey are often not tolerated, and if you don’t ‘choose a side’, expect to get caught in the crossfire.

I haven’t read the belatedly released SAGE Minutes yet but I expect there will have been lots of discussions on points where Walport’s lenses (Evidence, Deliverability, Values) sit uncomfortably alongside each other.

At some point, I imagine a fly on the wall, hearing …

“we need to do test, trace and isolate as soon as possible”

“agreed, but we need to recognise the constraint that the test capacity is limited at the moment, so we’ll have to wait till we have flattened the curve enough, to reduce the testing demand, but also build up capacity; meanwhile we cannot avoid a lockdown”

“can someone answer this – how well will the public comply and how would this change the numbers?”

“we ran some sensitivity analysis, and we need very high compliance to make it work”

“…”

Leading to a messy compromise set of ‘options’ and scientists NOT the ones with the authority to choose which ones.

The scientists didn’t choose a context where Governments had failed to take on board prior recommendations over some years, to build capacity in PPE, etc. So the advice is very context dependent.

It is highly disingenuous of politicians to say they are ‘following the science’ when that is just one element in the decision making, and where a poor starting position (e.g. the lack of prior investment in pandemic responsiveness) is neither something they influenced, nor can change.

….  o o O o o ….

Updated with Diagram and Footnote on 28th June 2020

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Becoming an artist: fundamentals

 

“you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye”

David Hockney reflecting on the Chinese attitude to art

 

I wrote about my ‘awakening’ in moving originally from a science background and finding my way to becoming an artist since my retirement.

Art may seem to be completely different to the science I grew up with, because there appear to be no rules. But the artist and scientist do have quite a lot in common, as I discussed previously:

        • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
        • ability to acutely observe the world; 
        • a fascination with patterns;
        • not afraid of failure;
        • dedication to keep going; 
        • searching for truth; 
        • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
        • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

The difference is that in science we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypotheses that challenge the boundaries of our knowledge. Whereas in art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see, and how do I make sense of it?’ , then, ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’.

In art we do not have rules like in science, but in order to make progress, it is important to articulate guidelines, or fundamental principles if you like.

My starting point is a desire to create representational art, but including impressionistic styles, and even abstractions. I am not interested in trying to create a perfect copy of a scene, because as I often say, if that was my objective I would use a camera, not a paint brush.

This is not about being lazy and not wanting to create all that perfect detail, but rather to highlight the fact that a painting is doing a completely different job to a photograph; it is an expression not a record.

This is the second essay in a series I am writing on Becoming an artist, and I want to turn to the fundamentals.

The fundamental principles can be loosely grouped under the following headings:

  • Heart – learning to develop one’s creative impulse;
  • Eye – learning to observe as an artist does;
  • Hand – learning general techniques applicable to any medium.

I cover just those principles that I have internalised particularly over the last few years as a student of Alison Vickery, my mentor on this journey.

I haven’t read Hockney’s reflections on the Chinese artist tradition, but it is curious that I independently – in my first draft of this essay – came up with Practice, Observation and Technique. It was Alison who suggested it fitted well with the Chinese approach that Hockney espouses, so I changed the headings to Heart, Eye and Hand. Maybe these really are universals that any student of painting, from any culture, will recognise on reflection.

I am always questioning things “why do you do that?” or “how do you do that?”, and then trying to find the why behind the why. 

Alison has never written down this list, this is my appreciation of the lessons I have learned, and I am sure I will have missed some important elements out, or presented things differently to how a professional artist like her would articulate things. 

I am sharing my journey and the ideas that have helped me, and so feel free to use and abuse these ideas in your journey.

Heart

The emotional side of painting is in many ways the most important. When you feel free to express yourself in the way you want, you are, by definition, an artist. 

While you try to be someone else and to follows somebody else’s standards of what you think you should be and do, then you will struggle to find your voice, and your language for expression. 

Under the heading of ‘Heart’ I highlight the things that most influenced me in finding my voice, which includes aspects of expressiveness.

Loosen up

In sport you need to do a warm up, and in art it is also important to free up any tension in your mind or body.  Try to start a session on a cheap piece of paper first (so you won’t stress about ‘wasting’ an expensive piece of art paper).

Even when doing a piece of work you wish to develop, you still need to be bold and work fast, initially at least, and avoiding tightening up.

Start with the biggest brush you can get away with, hold it loose not tightly.  When you start painting, avoid fine brushes altogether; they will kill your ability to work loose.

For watercolour, try starting with a size 12 brush  – a decent quality one that will hold a lot of pigment but still make a point.

Loosen up. Make mistakes, they may be happy ones.

Work the whole area

The opposite extreme would be to start painting in the bottom left and work your way up to the top right, or for Michelangelo to carve out the perfect head of the David before moving on to doing his willy! No, as with a sculptor, you must ‘chip away’ all over the subject in broad bold strokes.

As you move to less bold and more detailed strokes, still keep working all areas of the ‘canvas’.

A huge benefit of this approach is that you will being to see things that influence how you develop the painting. Maybe you had a preconception of how you wanted to develop it, but you can now see how to make it better.

Don’t be afraid of white space

Working every areas of the paper is not the same as covering every area with paint – it is ok and actually desirable to leave areas of white space (or whatever the background colour might be). You need the light to get in.

White might be used to suggest light falling on a subject; a painted tree might be dark on one side where there is shadow, and white on the other, suggesting light from the sun.

This is particularly important with a medium like watercolour, where you need to compensate for an inherent difficulty in creating good contrast, and the white space can help to achieve it.

Use sketches and studies

As part of trying to get to know the scene better, do several quick sketches or studies, maybe starting with a charcoal drawing, then a very quick watercolour. Give yourself a short time just to produce something. Use cheap paper again.

Perhaps tear off bits of paper and see how it changes your perspective on things.

Mess around. Don’t self censor. Just go for it. 

If you create something that you think ‘that looks interesting’, then cut it out and paste it into an art journal, and add some written side notes “I wetted the paper and dropped in a swathe of cobalt blue, then dabbed it with kitchen towel to create a cloud”. Build up an inventory of such experiments.

Play with composition

After doing an initial sketch of a scene, you can use a ‘window’ cut out of card (with the required aspect ratio for the final painting), placed at different distances from the sketch, and use it to see how much you want to include in the final piece.

Maybe you decide that the house in the foreground is a distraction from the copse on the hillside which is what you really want to be the main focus in the composition.

Learn when to stop

Picasso once said that a finished painting is a dead painting.

It is so easy to over-work a painting, so learning where that inflexion point occurs – between improving a piece and killing it – is perhaps the most difficult skill of all.

Always err on being slightly underdone to overdone.

Eye

Painting is not photography. You are not trying to replicate what a camera would see. 

You are creating an impression that speaks to you (and you hope, will speak to others, but that is a bonus). While the work is representational, that does not mean you cannot be impressionistic.

You can decide to remove the annoying road sign that is upsetting the composition; make the clouds more moody; or whatever you care to. But it is important to learn to observe. Having a good eye is as important as having a good brush!

Paint what catches your eye or interests you

It might be the shape of a tree that intrigues you, or the curve of a river, or the curious shape of a cloud, or the tree line on a brow of a hill. Whatever it is, it is a great subject for you, because you are emotionally invested in it.

Learn to be acutely observant

How much time are you spending looking at the paper, and your brush strokes and how much time observing the subject matter? As a novice it is often a 80/20 split in time, when if anything it should be a 20/80 split.

The more you look, the more you see. The brain is telling you that the grass is green, but look closely and in the evening sunlight there seems to be some blue grass in the shadows of the tree – impossible? No, trust what you see.

The light from the window makes the shoulder of the sitter look almost white, but how can that be – they are wearing a black jacket. Look again, trust what you see.

Even if you don’t particularly like drawing, it is worth having a go, because it is another way to help develop one’s observational skills.

Think tonally

It is so easy to become obsessed with finding the right colour to use, but much more important than colour is tone.

Seeing the dark patches lurking in the depth of the wood, and noting that even on the apparently uniformly yellow daffodil there are shades and shadows, that help create a sense of volume; these are example of being tonally observant.

Having a good tonal range can really bring a painting to life.

Doing charcoal studies can really help to develop a sense of tone, unencumbered by considerations of colour.

When preparing to compose a picture, establishing the tonal range of the scene or subject is one of the most important things you can do.

Hard and soft edges

Often we feel compelled to paint or draw a hard edge because our brain says ‘there is a vase there, so I will draw around it’. Look more carefully and the brightly lit side of the vase blends in with the brightly lit background, creating a soft barely discernible edge. Resist drawing what you cannot see!

Look through someone else’s eyes

Take time out to step back, get a sup of tea, and then imagine you are someone else viewing the painting for the first time.

Does it grab you? Have you resolved the different elements of the composition? Have you established a focal point that draws the viewer in?

Look out for symmetry

Humans seem to like patterns in nature and one of the most universal patterns is simple bilateral symmetry – the kind created by the reflection of a scene in a body of water (with a horizontal line of symmetry), or created by the centre line of a tree  (with a vertical line of symmetry).

It can really help draw in the viewer to exploit the symmetries we see around us, in our paintings.

Background

A background may naturally present itself, as in a landscape, but in a studio, doing a still life for example, there may be a white wall behind the subject and little else. To avoid a painting looking flat, it is helpful to create a background, even where none exists. Maybe some imagined shadows or some texture on a wall will help.

Think about how a background might enhance the composition. It is so easy to get lost in a subject in a foreground, and forget how important a background can be in developing a composition.

Hand

Most, but not all, of the techniques described below are applicable to any of the painting mediums I have in mind: charcoal, pastel, watercolour, ink and acrylic. 

Later essays will focus on techniques specific to each medium. There are hundred of different techniques and ‘tricks of the trade’ out there. You will never stop learning new ones, but it is easy to get overwhelmed. I have included here the ones I feel are most important, at least to me.

Experiment with mark making

Try using different shaped brush heads, and other tools to create marks on a page.

We cannot all be Van Gogh who created his own brilliant style of mark making, but we can all just have a play.

To illustrate this, think about how you might paint a branch of a tree. You could use a classical pointed watercolour brush and carefully follow a line to mark out the branch. But you might struggle to control the thickness of the branch.

Alternatively, you could use a very wide headed flat brush to create the branch with a single dab of the brush.

Use brushes of different shapes and sizes, twigs, bunched up cloth, sponges, palette knives, or whatever; depending on the medium.

There are no rules with mark making – only that you approach it with confidence – so best to just try out as many variations as you can. Find out what works for you.

Play with negative spaces

A brightly lit vase on a table with a dark background might be approached first by painting the dark background – the vase will appear out of the darkness.

This idea can we be used in different ways, even when doing a simple sketch. Wainwright’s pencil drawings of the Cumbrian hills often include sheep, brightly lit from above. So instead of outlining the back of a sheep, he drew the grassland in the background; a sheep then appears as the negative of the grassland.

Use layering / glazes

When a medium is translucent or thinly enough applied to effectively be so, one can build up multiple layers to create a desired effect. 

In some cases – particularly with pastels – the painting may need to be fixed before proceeding further to avoid muddying the colours.

Surprisingly, even when using a medium as basic as charcoal, it is good to think in terms of layering.

With watercolour, glazes can help to develop depth.

Just as an old piece of furniture develops a patina, a painting can also develop a sense of complexity from multiple glazes.

Thin and thick

In any medium, it is normally best to start thin and only later to use a thicker form of the medium.

In acrylics, this is very important (in oils also, but I won’t be discussing oils in this series); using a more diluted medium at first. But the same applies to watercolours where one starts with light washes on the wet side, and only later might use some gouache on the drier side for some highlights.

The idea applies to pastel painting also. You should use light strokes with the side of a pastel stick at first.

Minimal palette 

Try when working in colour to use a minimal palette. Primary colours and white at a minimum.

It is a great discipline to learn how to make one’s own greens, browns and greys. With 2 yellows and 2 or 3 blues you can make a huge range of greens, for example.  As with all rules, you may want sometimes to break this rule; a ‘sap green’ can be difficult to replicate and is useful for bright foliage.

By using a small palette it makes it easier to tie the painting together, chromatically.

One can always add a few additional hues to finish a painting.

Knocking back

Sometimes a pigment is too bright for the current situation, such as on a grey day in winter. By adding a little of the complementary colour (on the opposite side of a colour wheel), it dulls the intensity of the pigment you are going to use.

With watercolour you can also, of course, reduce the hue intensity by adding white gouache.

Use of resist mediums

A ‘resist’ medium is something you can place on the paper (or canvas, or board) that will not absorb the pigment being applied to the surface. This can be for a range of reasons.

A masking fluid can be used to precisely cover a shape that must remain white in the final piece, or at least, not be covered by whatever is about to be painted over the medium. The fluid must dry fully then be removed by rolling a finger over it. This is ideal, for example, for snowdrop flowers.

The other kinds of resist medium tend to be ones that are used to cover a line or area and remain in place. For example, wax or a clear oil pastel crayon. These can be used to create texture – when wanting to create some extra effects in clouds, or in some landscape or on a building. 

Alternatively, resist might be used to suggest gaps between trees or foreground grasses, or some other effect where you don’t want the background (usually white, but not necessarily so) painted over.

Wet and dry

Particularly with watercolour but also with acrylics, the amount of water used when applying pigment can have a big impact on the picture. There is frequently a benefit to starting quite wet and allowing pigment to flow a bit. This avoids getting hard edges too early in a painting’s development. You can also just drop in other pigments and just see what happens.

You may need to use a hairdryer at some point to allow you to move onto a new wash or glaze / layer.

Later on, it may be you need to do some relatively dry work, dragging a relatively dry and lightly loaded brush – without completely covered the area – in order to deliberately generate striations. In a watercolour, this might be done with water colour pigment added to white gouache, for example.

Dabbing, rubbing and scraping

Sometimes, it is useful to be able to partially remove medium in order to create a necessary effect.

When doing a charcoal sketch, the rubber is as important as the charcoal in building up a patina to develop the image.

In watercolour, a paper towel can be all one needs to instantly create a cloud in a sea of blue that has just be painted.

For acrylic, scraping an upper layer of pigment away – before it has completely dried – to reveal pigment below can be used in number ways, such as helping to suggest a line of trees on the ridge of a hill.

Flicking and spraying

No one wants to paint every leaf on a tree and there is no need to. Look at a tree painted by Turner or Constable and you will see a fair number of brush strokes for foreground trees, to give the impression of detail, without excessive labour, but only broad strokes for distant trees.

Modern painters will often use an additional technique of flicking or spraying pigment to suggest the necessary complexity of the foliage. It can be repeated for different hues to create additional complexity.

Flicking of white gouache, slightly diluted can be used to help suggest the froth of a breaking wave, for example.

It is useful to have a cheap brush with quite stiff bristles (such as one might use for applying PVA in collage; if not available, an old toothbrush will also do the trick), as this allows one to do flicking by merely stroking the bristles (rather than using the wrist), giving much greater control.

Consider the interplay of simplicity and complexity

As we have seen with use of layering, resist and flicking techniques, there are several ways in which to develop complexity, and the human eye is intrigued by complexity. 

That is why we prefer to look at a rusty corrugated tin roof to one that is pristine and uniform. Yet we also like simplicity. A perfectly  rendered blue sky, a flat sea and a wide sandy beach – with just a small sailing boat in the distance – brings a sense of calm.

In developing an idea for a painting we can observe this interplay of complexity and simplicity in the world around us, and then decide how we might render it.

Consider the interplay between precision and imprecision

The painter must choose where to put effort into developing detail.

Typically, the subject is given more attention and other elements of the composition are allowed to be imprecise. A photographer, when doing a portrait amongst a landscape, will often use depth of field to make the background loose focus, and in a way so is the painter, but with greater freedom to emphasise or play with this imprecision. 

It may be that one needs the woodland on the distant hill to frame the picture of the family by the river, but the trick is to be very imprecise in how it is rendered – less is often very much more.

Choice of paper or other surface

There is a bewildering array of different surfaces to paint on. 

Papers can come in different weights and also levels of roughness of the surface.

Pastels require some grain on the surface to ‘take’ the pastel. Watercolour paper can be smooth or mottled and it depends a great deal on how wet you want to work, and whether you find the texture a help or a hinderance.

You will learn about stretching paper, and about priming paper or board with gesso. 

For any single sheet of paper, you need a board and masking tape to secure it to the board. Whether you need an easel or not depends on how you end up working. Some artists work so ‘wet’ they need to use a flat surface to work on with the ability to raise one side to cause the medium to flow; this is a long way from the classic image of an old master with the canvas on an easel.

Ensure you have some cheap cartridge paper you can experiment with, so you don’t get frozen by the thought that ‘this board is so expensive I better make this one a masterpiece!’. 

It can also help to have a range of sizes, so try doing small watercolour pieces, before migrating to larger formats. It is quicker to get a result and also takes the pressure off you.

Whereas for charcoal, you generally need to work on a bigger piece of paper straight away; but a relatively low cost large format ring-bound sketch book (around A3 size) is fine for this purpose.

Mixed media

In truth, many painting use mixed media, although some more obviously than others.

For example, a watercolour may use a number of other media:

    • pens to resolve some features (but best used sparingly), such as railings;
    • inks to help develop greater tonal depth;
    • gouache to finish a piece with greater colour intensity, for flicking effects or for white highlights;
    • pastels to help develop a light glaze of texture – for foliage or other features – as a finish.

There are also numerous special materials that can be tried, such as liquid pencil, to create effects.

But there is no obligation to throw everything at a painting, and it can be easy to get carried away with mixing media.

A great artist like Kurt Jackson has developed his own brilliant style – a vocabulary that is special to him – and his use of mixed media feels unforced and natural.

It is always best to start simple and work on adding ingredients over time, as and when they come naturally to you, rather than merely including them to try to emulate Kurt.

Conclusion

These fundamentals are the things I have internalised from an intensive three years of learning to become an artist, with the help principally of my mentor Alison Vickery, but also some other helpers along the way.

In the following essays, I want to show how these fundamental are reflected in sketches, studies and a few developed pieces I will share, from my endeavours.

I often forget these principles, catching myself in an act of regression, and then have to remind myself. Alison’s voice is often in my head …

‘paint what interests you’

‘don’t get too fiddly’

‘work the whole area’

‘stop right there!’

‘put down the pencil’

‘is the tonal range ok?’

‘loosen up’

I call them “Alison’s Aphorisms”.

It takes years to internalise the fundamentals of being an artist, and even then, so easy to get carried away and still fall flat on one’s face.

Equally, as time goes by nice surprises happen. 

You find that you ‘accidentally’ created something quite good, and you scratch your head and ask ‘How did I manage that?’. 

Don’t be surprised, you are becoming an artist!

Gradually, the better stuff happens more frequently and the not so great become less frequent. The art folder gets fatter and the dustbin less full of discarded pieces.

But everything you do provides a learning moment. Keep some of the not so great paintings to remind yourself of how far you have travelled.

Keep asking questions; it worked for me when I was a scientist and as a consultant, and it is something I continue to do as an artist.

Keep experimenting, and keep asking questions.

Making mistakes is fine, because that is the only way to learn.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: sketchbooks

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Becoming an artist: awakenings

This is about my journey. Everyone’s journey will be different. I am addressing those, who like me, have spent a long time thinking about doing art, but never finding the time or courage to do it.

How many people suffer from that debilitating idea “I can’t paint*”. This is often because someone told you so, or gave your confidence such a knock, you never quite recovered enough to try again [* paint, or anything else you would like to do – learn to play an instrument, be a sculptor, do maths, play the drums, or whatever].

Schoolchildren are expected to make a choice quite early in life as to what they want to be. At face value it seems reasonable to expect a student to start to specialise at some point, but the mirror image of this is that they must ‘drop’ a whole load of stuff that is valuable in life. Little wonder that in older age people often pick up on subjects they loved but did not have an opportunity to develop when young.

I chose to specialise in science, even before I was forced to make that choice. 

I’d happily freeze to death looking at the moon and stars through a small but much loved telescope, clutching my Observer’s Book of Astronomy (I think I may have had a 1st edition from 1962, when I was just 9). Geometry was my favourite subject. 

A little later but still quite young I had a laboratory, and loved to do experiments with bits of apparatus such as a Liebig Condensor, regularly causing a stink that required all the windows in the house to be opened to clear the smell.

I was never a rote learner. I always asked questions and challenged my teachers. I love the ability of small children to ask “why?” then why again, to never be afraid to ask questions. But it is also important to learn how to listen to the answers, to reflect on them and then to do work to explore things more deeply. This gives rise to more questions.

I wanted to understand the world and how it was put together, and went on to study Chemistry at university. To highlight my tendency to question things, there is a story from my final exams I want to share. 

There was a question about chemical bonding I didn’t like because of the way it was framed, so I answered it just like I knew the examiner would want it answered, but then wrote “However, I want to challenge the framing of this question, and believe the question ought to have been …”. 

I then wrote a second answer to my newly framed version of the question. The external examiner (Prof. S F A Kettle, I believe) was so impressed he told my mentor that he would have happily awarded me an upper first if such a thing existed. Nevertheless, I was very proud of the 1st Class Honours degree I did receive.

I stayed in academia for a while, doing a PhD at Cambridge and then a postdoc in Bristol, where I met Marilyn, who was to become my wife. 

For a range of reasons, I decided to leave academia in 1982, and worked in computer-aided design for several years, but for the final 30 years of my career up to 2016 I was an information management consultant, helping large organisation to be better at breaking down the information silos in their organisations, and be better custodians of their knowledge.

I enjoyed using creative ways to discuss and articulate problems. I never stopped asking questions. Clients liked my thoughtful approach, and the fact I didn’t try to ram software products down their throats (as had been their experience on the previous times somebody had promised to fix their issues).  In ways that I now recognise only in retrospect, my scientific and artistic sides both found expression in the way I did consultancy.

Throughout this time, I was always questioning myself, always learning from new engagements about other ways to look at things. Even when one thinks one has mastered a skill, there will always be opportunities to explore nuances or discover new variants of a skill.

Over my 63 years before I retired I had tried on a few occasions to learn to paint. Even at school there was a group of us scientists who showed artistic promise and the art teacher allowed us access to the studio to paint just for fun, not for any examination. And I have attended classes on watercolours 30 years ago, but it never went anywhere.

Meanwhile, one of the favourite activities that Marilyn and I enjoyed over these years was visiting art exhibitions, and we have numerous catalogues to testify to this. I was great at looking at art, but not doing it.

There could have been many reasons for the failure of my early attempts to develop further. 

I had a time-consuming and at times stressful job, involving a lot of travel abroad. Marilyn and I brought up two girls, and there were always too many projects (that, funnily enough, seems not to have changed!). In Bristol I was an early recruit to Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA), and became its Secretary for a while. Writing and speaking took up a lot of my extra curricula head space (SANA later became SGR, Scientists for Global Responsibility, and is still active).

Since my retirement, I have become very active on climate change, giving talks and helping to found a group, Nailsworth Climate Action Network in my home town, which I am currently Secretary of.

Despite being busy with family – now with grandchildren – and home, garden, climate change, etc. I decided I wanted to have another go at learning to paint. 

Marilyn and I have for several years tried to stop buying stuff – we have too much already – and instead buy vouchers for experiences or classes. 

About 6 years ago she bought me a voucher for a set of 1-to-1 art lessons from our dear friend Di Aungier-Rose. Unlike previous art teachers I had tried, Di was very good at getting me to loosen up and not stress about what I was doing; to not obsess about colour and so on. To just have fun, and see what emerged. She imparted little nuggets of wisdom here and there, but without overloading me.  

This unlocked the first door to me becoming an artist, and gave me a boost in confidence. I knew from that point on that I had an innate ability to become an artist, even while I knew it would be a long journey.

However, the ‘3 steps forward, 2 steps back’ rule seemed to hit me. I got waylaid by climate change, sorting out my pension for retirement, etc. There is always a long list of things stopping us doing what we want!

Also, I was really hankering after learning how to use watercolours, and had a lot of admiration for the work of another local artist, Alison Vickery. So, a few years ago Marilyn bought me another present: to attend a batch of classes at Alison’s weekly art class, held at Pegasus Art in Stroud.

I will talk more about what Alison has taught me in later essays in this series, but the key point here was that I started to carve out a time during the week – every week – when I wouldn’t be distracted by the other things crowding in on me. Wednesday afternoon was to be art time. So even if I didn’t manage to do any art during the rest of the week, this time was sacrosanct.

I have kept attending these classes ever since.

Maybe that is the secret – and of course a lot easier when you are retired – to find a space to do your art. 

If you are very disciplined and no longer require a mentor, then it is perfectly possible to create this time and space for yourself. It may mean creating a Woman Shed or Man Shed in the garden, to get away from domestic distractions.

However it is done, you need to find your time, and your space.

You need to unlearn the “I can’t do X” gremlin in your brain.

Now it is time to loosen up; to experiment; to ask questions; and to rediscover the joy of learning something new.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: fundamentals

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Keep Calm, But Take Action

How do people respond to ‘signals’ regarding their health and well-being? 

Some people will refuse to respond, such as these smokers I saw outside a hospital a few days ago (where I was visiting my daughter, thankfully now discharged after a nasty infection; not coronavirus).

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 07.27.24

There is a large sign ‘Strictly No Smoking’, that is routinely ignored.

And what of people who read Richard Littlejohn and others, for years in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, etc., railing against the ‘nanny state’ or ‘elf and safety’ ?

Large swathes of people are effectively inoculated against alarm, and will not respond to signals, even if a megaphone was put to their ear. 

These are the super-spreaders of denial and complacency. 

I am not talking here of professional dissemblers in the climate realm who make their living trying to undermine the scientific consensus. Those who write opinion pieces claiming, wrongly:

  • more CO2 is good for us because plants will flourish (Matt Ridley);
  • or claiming ocean acidification is non-existent (James Delingpole);
  • or that it’s the sun’s fault (Piers Corbyn);
  • or that we are about to enter an ice age (Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph every 6 months for the last 10 years) .

Like stories of Lord Lucan sightings, these lazy opinion formers simply dust off the old rubbish to serve it up again, and again. Year in year out. It pays the mortgage I suppose. And when they tell people what they want to hear – that we can carry on regardless – there is no shortage of chortling readers. Ha ha ha. How very funny, poking fun at the experts.

No, I am  not talking about these dissemblers, but rather, the mass of those who have been reading this rubbish for 30 years and are now impervious to evidence and scornful of experts.

And there is an epidemic of such people, who believe

no need to be alarmed, staying calm and carrying on regardless 

It is not just health or climate change, but is applied universally. For example, the  Millennium Bug was apparently overblown according to these people (having seen the code that needed fixing, I can assure you, it wasn’t).

However, those who deal with addressing threats are in a no-win situation: if they act and prevent the worst happening, then people – who are largely unaware of what is being done behind the scenes – will say ‘you see, it wasn’t a problem’.  If they didn’t act, then guess who would get the blame.

Yet when people do raise the alarm, such as when parents wrote letters complaining of the risks of the vast colliery tip adjacent to the Welsh town of Aberfan, they are often brushed off, and the result was a disaster that lives on in our memory (see Note).

Now we have the Covid-19 virus. 

It is no surprise that there have been many saying that people are being unnecessarily alarmed; and the message is the same – we should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

It’s just like seasonal flu, don’t worry. It will disappear soon enough.

These are often the same people who rail against ‘climate alarmism’.

Man-made global heating will be orders of magnitude worse than Covid-19, across every aspect of society – food security, sea-level rise, eco-system collapse, mass migration, heat stress, etc. – and over a longer timescale but with increasing frequency of episodic shocks, of increasing intensity.

Unlike Covid-19, there will be no herd immunity to climate change.

But we have the ability to halt its worst impacts, if we act with urgency.

We cannot quarantine the super-spreaders of denial and complacency, but we can confront them and reject their message.

I wonder, as the mood seems to be changing, and experts are now back in fashion it seems, could this be a turning point for action on climate change?

Can we all now listen to the experts on climate change?

Can we Keep Calm, but Take Action?

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

 

Note

There was a collapse of part of the massive colliery spoil tip at 0915 on 21st October 1966  The main building hit was Pantglas Junior School, where lessons had just begun. Five teachers and 109 children were killed in the school.

As one example of numerous correspondence prior to this, raising concerns, was a petition from parents of children at The Grove school raising the issue of flooding undermining the tip. This was passed up through the bureaucracy, but a combination of the Borough Council and National Coal Board failed to act. As the official report noted in unusually strong words:

“As we shall hereafter see to make clear, our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. … the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied” (bullet 18., page 13)

1966-67 (553) Report of the tribunal appointed to inquire into the disaster at Aberfan on October 21st, 1966

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Thoughts on starting a community climate action group (a talk)

Good evening.

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist, and hugely influential communicator, is often asked:

What is the first thing I should do about climate change?

Her answer is simple:

Talk about it!

How on Earth can that reduce our carbon footprint you may ask?

On the other hand, it is a common phenomenon when climate groups start, that the first thought is often ‘we need to build a solar PV array on the edge of town’. 

I am not saying don’t do that, but there are big benefits to talking about it, and not rushing to build.

  • Firstly, if people are not fully on board with the idea that urgent action is needed to address global warming, then some talking will really help change hearts and minds.
  • Secondly, there are many different ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, and we need to push forward on all fronts. Don’t let the enthusiasm for one project crowd out ideas for other things that need to be discussed, and weighed up.
  • Thirdly, if we focus solely on technological solutions like electric cars, we potentially exclude a lot of people who are put off by technology, or cannot afford to invest in them; and would like a reliable bus service to be a priority! 
      • We need to build a much bigger tent where we discuss topics like consumption, waste, heating, public transport, energy efficiency and local food. Topics that will draw in as wide a population as possible.
  • Finally, by developing a wide perspective on all different approaches and potential initiatives, the group will be in a better position to call on community support for emerging projects.

Some will argue: but why is the challenge of addressing dangerous global warming being placed on the shoulders of householders and local communities? 

Surely, Government and big business have the resources and power to make it happen?

I reject the implied binary thinking here.

In fact, Government, big business, pension funds, County Councils, District Councils, Parish Councils, local businesses, householders – you and me – can all make a difference and influence what happens.

Ok, so there are some things that only Governments and big business can do. But ultimately, every product and service is – directly or indirectly – created for us. 

We have agency – we can decide: 

  • what we do, 
  • how we do it.
  • and how often we do it.

We can choose to car share twice a week; or opt for that staycation; or reduce our meat consumption. Every family is different, but we make lots of choices, intentionally or not; and every choice matters.

We started NailsworthCAN in 2016 around the time of the Paris Agreement. Our focus was always on practical action rather than protest. But action comes in many forms: engaging, influencing, networking, capacity building, constructing.

We have spent a lot of time developing the conversation with different groups in the community: with the Town Council, Church, Schools, Rotary, Transition Stroud, etc., and with our previous and current MP.  We act sometimes to lead, sometime to act as a catalyst, and sometimes simply to provide support to others. Hence the use of the word ‘network’.

We have run stalls, organised talks on diverse topics, and identified a range of projects. We created and distributed a Carbon Pledges sheet. We have met and talked with hundreds of local people, and we have recruited members with a fantastic range of skills and knowledge.

We have ran workshops to gather ideas on local projects that people are interested in across a range of topics –

  • Food and agriculture;
  • Mobility and transport;
  • Buildings and their environment;
  • Energy generation;
  • Waste;
  • Nature and the Environment;
  • Health and Wellbeing.

We have worked with the Town Council to help develop an outline plan across these areas.

One specific initiative is to conduct a survey of hospitality venues in town to assess current practice on energy use, waste, etc., and identify ‘wins’ for these venues, the town and the planet.

Another initiative is to develop a 5-year tree planting plan on council land.

And another is a community-led domestic retrofit scheme.

And yes, we have a few renewable energy generation schemes in the pipeline.

Each of the climate groups I have met has its own personality, way of organising, and methods for coordinating their efforts with their respective Parish councils.

Each has had ideas on how to push forward on different fronts, and all can learn from each other.

The great evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson – when being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ said:

“Humanity has Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like power, … and that is a dangerous combination”.

But I would respond by saying we also have the capacity to overcome our destructive power, and work collectively to reveal the positive side of our humanity.

Don’t be critical if you start with talking, then move to small actions.

Just don’t stop at small actions.

Small actions can provide learnings and help us move to larger ones.

Share and celebrate success, as we do on social and printed media. 

Small conversations can be the foundation for bigger ones, resulting in significant actions, and system change.  Ultimately, this is all about system change; business as usual  will not get us to where we need to be.

Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint, and like a marathon, we need to help each other stay the course.

I wish Minchinhampton every success as it starts its conversation.

Thank you.

…. o o O o o ….

Richard W. Erskine, Secretary of NailsworthCAN

Invited talk at the launch of Minchinhampton Climate Action Network.

11th March 2020.

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Do Tipping Points mean Runaway Global Warming after 12 years?

Is it 12 years?

That’s a belief I am finding increasingly common, but it really isn’t what the science is telling us.

The science is saying that things are very serious and every year we fail to “bend the curve down” as Greta Thunberg puts it, the worse the outcomes. We know from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 1.5oC Special Report that 2oC is significantly, perhaps surprisingly, worse than 1.5oC.

That is not a reason for a dystopian view that all is lost if we fail to get to zero after 12 (or is it now 11 years) if we don’t get to net zero by then.

The science is not that certain. The IPCC said that 2030 global net emissions must reduce by 45% versus 2010 emissions to achieve 1.5oC, and get to zero by 2050.

That is not to say we should not have highly ambitious targets, because the sooner we peak the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the sooner we peak the global warming (see Note 1).

Because it is such a huge challenge to decarbonise every sector of our economies, we should have started 30 years ago, and now we have to move very fast; whatever date you put on it. So, if I question some of the dystopian memes out there it is certainly not to question the need for urgent action.

Feedbacks and Tipping Points

I think what lies at the root of the dystopian message is a belief that tipping points – and there are quite a number in the Earth system – are like dominoes, and if one goes over, then all the rest follow. At a meeting I went to that included policy experts, XR, scientists, and others, I got into a chat about feedbacks and tipping points.

The person I spoke to was basically 100% convinced that if we did not get to net zero after ’12 years’ we would set off feedbacks and tipping points. It really would be game over. I want to summarise my side of the conversation:

I appreciate your concern about tipping points; they are real and need to be taken into account.

It is complicated and there are cases that can runaway (take Venus), but there is often a response that limits a particular feedback.

For example, extra CO2 causes warming, which due to the Clausius–Clapeyron relation means that additional water vapour (gaseous form of water, not clouds) is added to the atmosphere (7% extra for every 1C of warming). Since H2O is also a strong greenhouse gas that causes more warming.

This is a crucial ‘fast feedback’ included in climate models. It means that the expected 3oC of warming from doubling CO2 in the atmosphere is actually 1oC from the CO2 and 2oC extra from the H2O feedback (see Note 2).

Ok, so why doesn’t this warming carry on as a runaway (there is plenty of water in the ocean)?

The reason is Stefan’s Law (or ‘Planck Response’).

A body at temperature T emits energy at a rate proportional to T to the power 4. So the loss of heat accelerates and this at some points stops the feedback process (see Note 3).

A way to think about this is a plastic container with a hole at the bottom (say 7mm wide). Pour water from a tap at a constant rate, say half a litre per minute, into the container. What happens? The water level in the container rises to a point that maintains this level. At this point the pressure at the base of the container has increased to the point that the rate of flow of water out of the bottom is equal to the rate of flow in. They are in balance, or ‘equilibrium’.

If I now plug the 7mm hole and drill a 6mm one instead (yes I did this for a talk!), then with the same flow rate coming in, the level of water rises, because it requires more pressure at the base to drive water out at the rate required, to bring the system back into balance (when the level of water stops rising).

We are in both cases having the same amount of energy leaving as entering the system, but in the latter case, energy has been trapped in the system. 

This is a very good analogy for what happens with the Greenhouse Effect (see Note 4), and the level of water is analogous to the trapped energy (which means a hotter planet), and the world warms even though the rate at which energy is coming in (from the Sun) is constant. We can explain the Greenhouse Effect via this analogy simply:

The increased heat trapping power of the atmosphere with an increased concentration of COrestricts the exiting (infra-red) radiation to space – this is analogous to the reduced hole size in the container – and so …

The temperature of the Earth rises in order to force out radiation at the correct rate to balance the incoming energy – this is analogous to the increased level of water in the container. 

This demonstrates that the planet must stabilise the flow of energy out so that it equals the energy in, but with extra energy behind captured in the process (see Note 5).

The main point is that feedbacks do not inevitably mean there is a runaway.

Professor Pierrehumbert wrote a paper reviewing the possibility of a runaway in the sense of heading for a Venus scenario, and it seems unlikely “it is estimated that triggering a runaway under modern conditions would require CO2 in excess of 30,000 ppm”.

Even in more complex cases, such as melting sea ice and ice sheets, the feedbacks do not imply inevitable runaway, because in each case there is often a compensating effect that means a new equilibrium is reached.

But there is not one possible end state for a particular level of warming, there are numerous ones, and we know from the climate record that flips from one state to another can happen quite fast (the ocean conveyor belt transports huge amounts of heat around the planet and this is often implicated in these rapid transitions).

So, this is not to say that the new equilibirum reached is a good place to end up. Far from it. I agree it is serious, and the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is now unprecedented for over 3 million years. We are warming at an unprecedented rate, thousands of times faster than the Earth has seen in that period.

It is very scary and we don’t need to say a runaway is inevitable to make it even more scary!

Arguments that a feedback will trigger another, and so on, ad infinitum, may sound plausible but are not science, however confident and high profile the speaker may be. It does the XR cause no good to simply repeat wild speculation that has no scientific foundation, merely on the basis of a freewheeling use of the ‘precautionary principle’.

I hope this clarifies my point, which was not to minimise the urgency for action – far from it – I am 100% behind urgent action.

However, I think that sometimes it is important to be scientifically pedantic on the question of feedbacks and runaway. The situation is scary enough.

I really worry about the dystopian message for our collective mental health, and that this might freeze people and even limit action amongst the wider public who are not activitists (but need to participate in our collective actions).

We need a message of hope, and this is it:

The sooner we can peak the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (by stopping emissions), the sooner we can halt warming, and

the lower that peak in the atmospheric concentration, the lower the level of warming.

We can make a difference!

We have to act to make hope meaningful, because being alarmed, and frozen in the headlights, and unable to act, is not a recipe for hope.

However, being duly alarmed and having hope are not mutually exclusive, if we recognise we have agency. We can all make a contribution, to agitate for, or implement, a plan of actions and the actions that follow.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

 

NOTES

(1)   The IPCC 1.5C Special Report (p.64) talks about ‘committed warming’ in the oceans that is often assumed to mean that the Earth will continue to warm even when we stop CO2 emissions due to thermal inertia of heated oceans. Surprisingly for many, this is not the case. The IPCC reiterate what is a long known effect, regarding what they term the Zero Emissions Commitment:

“The ZEC from past COemissions is small because the continued warming effect from ocean thermal inertia is approximately balanced by declining radiative forcing due to COuptake by the ocean … Thus, although present-day CO2-induced warming is irreversible on millennial time scales … past COemissions do not commit substantial further warming”

(2)   This excludes clouds, and the effect of clouds at lower and higher levels can, for this simple example, can be regarded as cancelling each other out in terms of warming and cooling. Water Vapour in the atmosphere referred to here is not condensed into droplets but is a gas that is transparent to the human eye, but like carbon dioxide, is a strong absorber of infra-red. Because carbon dioxide is a non-condensing gas, but water does condense, it is the concentration of carbon dioxide that is the ‘control knob’ when it comes to their combined warming effect.  In 1905, T.C. Chamberlin writing to Charles Abbott, eloquently explains the feedback role of water vapour, and the controlling power of carbon dioxide:

“Water vapour, confessedly the greatest thermal absorbent in the atmosphere, is dependent on temperature for its amount, and if another agent, as CO2 not so dependent, raises the temperature of the surface, it calls into function a certain amount of water vapour, which further absorbs heat, raises the temperature and calls forth more [water] vapour …”

(3)  Strictly, it is a ‘black body’ – that absorbs (and emits) energy at all frequencies – that obeys Stefan’s Law. When using the law, we express T in Kelvin units. To a reasonable approximation, we can treat the Earth as a black body for a back of the envelope calculation, and we find that without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth – at its distance from the sun – would be 258K, or -15oC on average, a frozen world. That would be 30oC colder than our current, or pre-industrial, average of 15oC.

(4) John Tyndall originated this analogy in his memoirs Contributions to Molecular Physics in the Domain of Radiant Heat published in 1872, although he used the example of a stream and dam, which is raised, my exposition is essentially based on his precedent.

(5) One other aspect of this re-established equilibrium is that the so-called ‘Top of Atmosphere’ (TOA) – where the energy out in the form of infra-red, is balancing the energy in – is at higher altitiude. The more carbon dioxide we add, the higher this TOA. Professor Pierrehumbert explains it in this Youtube exposition, from the film Thin Ice, where he pulls in a few other aspects of the warming process, as it works on planet Earth (e.g. convection).

END

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Google and the Internet: Friend or Foe to the Planet?

I keep hearing this meme that goes along the lines of “a Google search will use X amount of energy”, where X is often stated in a form of a scary number.

I think numbers are important.

According to one source a Google search is about 0.0003 kWh of energy, whereas a 3kW kettle running for one minute uses 3 x (1/60) = 1/20 = 0.05 kWh, which is 160 times as much (another piece  uses an equivalent figure – Note 1).

On the UK grid, with a carbon intensity of approximately 300 gCO2/kWh (and falling) that would equate to 0.09 gCO2 or roughly 0.1 gCO2 per search. On a more carbon intensive grid it could be double this, so giving 0.2 gCO2 per search, which is the figure Google provided in response to The Sunday Times article by MIT graduate Alex Wissner-Gross (cited here), who had estimated 7 gCO2 per search.

If the average Brit does the equivalent of 100 searches a day, that would be:
100 x 0.0003 kWh = 0.03 kWh, whereas according to Prof. Mackay, our total energy use (including all forms) is 125 kWh per person per day in UK, over 4,000 times more.

But that is not to say the that the total energy used by the Google is trivial.

According to a Statista article, Google used over 10 teraWatthours globally in 2018 (10 TWh = 10,000,000,000 kWh), a huge number, yes.

But the IEA reports  that world used 23,000 TWh in 2018. So Google searches would represent about 0.04% of the world’s energy on that basis, a not insignificant number, but hardly a priority when compared to electricity generation, transport, heating, food and forests. Of course, the internet is more than simply searches – we have data analysis, routers, databases, web sites, and much more. Forbes published findings from …

A new report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory figures that those data centers use an enormous amount of energy — some 70 billion kilowatt hours per year. That amounts to 1.8% of total American electricity consumption.

Other estimates indicate a rising percentage now in the low few percentage points, rivalling aviation. So I do not trivialise the impact of the internet overall as one ‘sector’ that needs to address its carbon footprint.

However, the question naturally arises, regarding the internet as a whole:

how much energy does it save, not travelling to a library, using remote conferencing, Facebooking family across the world rather than flying, etc., compared to the energy it uses?

If in future it enables us to have smarter transport systems, smart grids, smart heating, and so on, it could radically increase the efficiency of our energy use across all sectors. Of course, we would want it used in that way, rather than as a ‘trivial’ additional form of energy usage (e.g. hosting of virtual reality game).

It is by no means clear that the ‘balance sheet’ makes the internet a foe rather than friend to the planet.

Used wisely, the internet can be a great friend, if it stops us using planes, over-heating our homes, optimising public transport use, and so forth. This is not techno-fetishism, but the wise use of technology alongside the behavioural changes needed to find climate solutions. Technology alone is not the solution; solutions must be people centred.

Currently, the internet – in terms of its energy use – is a sideshow when it comes to its own energy consumption, when compared to the other things we do.

Stay focused people.

Time is short.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

 

Note 1

I have discovered that messing about with ‘units’ can cause confusion. So here is an explainer. The cited article uses a figure of 0.3 Watt hours, or 0.3 Wh for short. The more commonly used unit of energy consumption is kilo Watt hours or kWh. As 1000 Wh = 1 kWh, so it remains true if we divide both sides by 1000: 1 Wh = 0.001 kWh. And one small step means 0.1 Wh = 0.0001 kWh. Hence, 0.3 Wh = 0.0003 kWh.  If you don’t spot the ‘k’ things do get mighty confusing!

 

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Fusion is the Future

Added foreword

Boris Johnson is no longer PM of the UK, but fusion disinformation continues unabated.

The UK Government’s Spring 2022 UK’s Public Attitudes Survey includes questions on fusion energy, as though it is in any way relevant to our current energy needs, or even in the near future; this is weird. 16% claim to know ‘a lot’ or ‘ a fair amount’ about fusion energy, yet 48% ‘strongly support’ or ‘support’ it. It seems that supporting things one doesn’t have a clue about is the new politics! 

Needless to say, the same survey shows overwhelming support for renewables. 85% support or strongly support. 79% agree that ‘It’s important that renewable energy developments provide direct benefit to the communities in which they are located’. This is another aspect of renewables that contrasts so greatly with fusion: It can scale to local, regional and national scale, and so is not in the hands of a few. It is also  understood by the populace. Energy democracy is key to a just transition in energy policy and implementation.

I have not changed the essay as I still stand by every word, but I have added two rather good and accessible resources produced by two physicists who have critiqued the hype on fusion energy: Michael de Podesta and Sabine Hossenfelder, whose twitter handles are @Protons4B and @skdh respectively, and very much worth a follow. They blow a hole in the fusion hype.

———————————————————————-

I mean it, it is the future.

Or rather, to be accurate, it could be the future.

In the core of the sun, the energy production is very slow, thankfully, so the beast lasts a long time. You need about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 collisons between hydrogen nuclei before you get 1 that successfully fuses, and releases all that energy.

Beating those odds in a man-made magnetic plasma container (such as a Tokamak) is proving to be something that will be done by tomorrow, plus 50 years (and repeat).

Boris Johnson obviously believes that the way to show a flourish of leadership is to channel dreams of technical wizardry that goes well beyond the briefings from those experts in the know.

But who believes in experts in magneto-hydrodynamics? Stop over complicating the story you naysayer PhDs. Positive mental attitude will confound physics! Get back in your box experts!

*CUT TO REAL WORLD*

Man-made fusion energy as an answer to the man-made climate emergency by 2040 is not just ignorant, it is a deliberate and cynical attempt to delay action now. It is a form of techno-fetishism that deniers love. Boris Johnson spends a lot of time with these people.

We have relevant solutions available today, and just need to get on with them.

We do indeed have a functionally infinite fusion energy generator available to humanity, and it is free.

It’s called ‘The Sun’ (an astronomical entity, not a rag masquerading as a newspaper).

If man-made fusion energy is commercialised it *MAY BE* relevant to a world *POST*  resolving the climate crisis, but is definitely not part, or even maybe part, of that resolution.

It fails key tests I discussed here

Please politicians – left, right and centre – stop playing games and take the climate emergency seriously.

It may surprise you that while Boris’s cult following will swallow anything (almost literally), the rest, and particularly the rising youth, will not.

But I am prepared to compromise. A deal is possible.

Fusion is indeed the future …

… it is the energy from the Sun!

And you might be surprised to hear that it gives rise to …

direct Photovoltaic (PV) capture of that energy,

and indirect forms of capture (e.g. wind energy).

Problem solved.

As to man-made fusion, the jury is out (and a distraction for now), and we don’t have time to wait for the verdict.

Resources

  1. A brilliant video talk by Dr Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the key dishonesty in all the reports of fusion energy success, and that is the failure to distinguish between the energy produced in the plasma of a fusion reaction (compared to the energy put into it), rather than the overall or end-to-end energy payback possible from electricity generation plant powered by a fusion reactor. See it here https://youtu.be/LJ4W1g-6JiY
  2. A much loved Radio 4 science programme ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry’ has done some great episodes. I particularly liked one on the properties of water and its role in biological processes. However, it has made a big flop on fusion energy, channelling the same old hype that is reported in hushed and unquestioning tones by journalists.  Dr Michael de Podesta has written a strong critique of this episode his blog Protons 4 Breakfast: ‘Fusion is a failure’, 21st September 2022, See https://protonsforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2022/09/21/fusion-is-a-failure/ 

(c) Richard W. Erskine. 2019 (Resources added Sept. 2022)

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Renewable Technologies: Facts, Fiction and Current Developments

Chris Wilde, Managing Director of Yorkshire Energy Systems (YES), gave a talk Renewable Technologies: Facts, Fiction and Current Developments on 5th September 2019 at The Arkell Centre in Nailsworth, hosted by Nailsworth Climate Action Town (NCAT). The focus was on domestic renewables in UK.

Chris exploded many myths and misunderstandings that even some supporters of renewables believe in. The audience included an influential range of people, from the national political level, to district and parish councillors, from Transition Stroud, local climate groups, Severn Wye Energy Agency, and local renewable energy businesses. It was an excellent talk and very well recieved.

I will be sharing a fuller record of the talk, but to briefly summarise his words that accompanied the pictures used in the talk, using my notes …

Whereas 5 years ago, or even 6 months ago, the majority of householders installing renewables were doing it simply for financial reasons, rather than to reduce their carbon footprint, that has now changed, and about half of those now doing it are motivated by concerns about global warming. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion can take a lot of credit for raising awareness.

Chris showed an aerial view of a large 110 kW (kilowatt, a unit of ‘power’) solar PV system YES did for a company close to Wembley Stadium. What is shocking is that there are huge areas of commercial roof space without solar surrounding this installation. As Chris said, it shouldn’t be a question of seeking permission to have solar – particularly on new homes or new commercial buildings – it should be required that they do have solar, and it is much cheaper to do it at build time than to retrofit later (“solar” will be used as shorthand for solar photovoltaic (PV) in the text below):

Solar Myths

Myth 1 – Solar is ugly. Leaving aside the point that saving the planet might be seen as more important than the aesthetics of roof lines, the fact is solar panels have been getting slicker and more aesthetic. It is now possible to replace tiles completely with in-roof panels.

Myth 2 – You can only have 4kW on your installation. No, you can only have 4kW per phase before seeking permission from the grid (kW here mean kWp, the peak kW power achievable).

Myth 3 – Cannot have solar without a south facing roof. Actually, the variation in input from west or east, versus south, facing panels can be as little as 15%, and in fact having east and west facing panels can be better for households needing more energy in the morning and afternoon. On flat roofs, you can pack east and west panels more tightly (because less spacing is then required to deal with shadowing effects), and this completely compensates for not being south facing.

Myth 4 – We don’t have a roof that is not shaded, so pointless. Ok, but there are other options, such as ground mounted arrays, or a tracking system like Heliomotion (which has a UK base in Stroud). Chris also showed arrays mounted high enough for sheep to graze under; and there is even a trend now to place solar on top of parking bays. There are simply so many ways of having solar fitted, there are no excuses for not doing it!

Myth 5 – The Feed In Tarif (FIT) has ended so it cannot be made to work, financially. This is wrong on several levels.

  • Firstly, the sun’s energy is free.
  • Secondly, the price of solar panels has dropped while their performance has increased (output increased from 250W to 350W over 5 years).
  • Thirdly, it is true that FIT gave householders 40p per kWh (kiloWatt hour, a unit of ‘energy’) for all energy generated, whether exported to the grid or not, and an extra 3p per kWh for 50% of that generated that is assumed to be exported to the grid. However, while there are now no FIT payments, utility companies will have to pay for what you export, under the new Export Guarantee Scheme (Octopus are already offering 5.5p per kWh even before the scheme comes in).
  • Fourthly, with a low cost ‘solar diversion switch’ any excess solar energy can be used to heat hot water, avoiding the need to export it to the grid (and by the way, this simple device has essentially killed the ‘solar thermal’ market).
  • Fifthly, systems that were costing between £3,000 and £4,000 per kW are now down to £1,000. So, in short, payback of a solar system is still possible within 6-7 years even without the FIT subsidy.
  • Finally, the reduction in bureaucracy with the loss of FIT means that it actually might, paradoxically, accelerate uptake of solar.

Heat Pump Myths

Chris started by explaining how heat pumps work, which seems miraculous to many people, but is the product of 17th century physics: if you compress a gas, it gets hotter. And a heat pump works by transferring heat from the air (or ground) via a fluid (a refrigerant) that is compressed and then releases its heat inside the building. But for each unit of energy used by the pump, 3 to 4 units of energy is extracted from the air in the form of heat. The two main categories of heat pump are Air Sourced Heat Pumps (ASHP) and Ground Sourced Heat Pumps (GSHP). The efficiency of a heat pump will vary with external temperature, but overall is quoted as a seasonally averaged figure.

Assume you had an ASHP with 3.5 efficiency factor. If you have a heating requirement of 18,000 kWh for your home, this could be achieved by using 18,000/3.5 = 5,143 kWh of electricity. Mains gas is currently 3p per kWh and mains electricity is 13 p per kWh so to heat the house with gas would be 18,000 x £0.03 = £540 per year, whereas to do it with this ASHP would be 5,143 x £0.13 = £669; still a bit more than gas, because gas is currently ridiculously cheap, but a few things to consider:

  • when a crisis occurs in the Middle East for example, gas prices can rise, and don’t have to swing much to wipe out the current distorted advantage of cheap gas;
  • a tax on carbon including gas, will come sooner or later to reflect the damage that carbon dioxide emissions are doing;
  • even if today some electricity is coming from fossil fuel plants, increasingly the grid is being ‘greened up’ (see www.carbonintensity.org to look at how much the grid has already greened);
  • as you will see below, if you add solar to a heat pump the maths flips, because you can use the free solar electricity to help drive the heat pump and even if that is not all year round, 24-7, it has made a huge difference;
  • finally, if you cannot add solar to your heat pump for some reason, many people are prepared to pay an extra £100 or so per year to save the planet (that is clear from the recent boost in heat pump installations YES have been seeing).

One other key point is that heating a house using a heat pump requires sufficiently large radiators because it operates using a flow temperature of 45/50oC, rather than say 70oC as with a gas boiler. At 45/50oC they still heat the house to the required temperature (typically 21oC), but does so with a larger surface area of ‘emitter’ (this effectively means a slight fatter radiator, and depending on how old the heating system in a house is, that may mean that some of the radiators need to be upgraded, but rarely all radiators; even better, under floor heating can be used, increasing the area even more).

Myth 6 – It cannot work when it is cold outside. Yes it can, as described. It is basic physics at work, and no magic is involved!

Myth 7 – They are more expensive than a gas boiler, so are unaffordable. Heat pumps are more expensive to fit but the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was designed precisely to deal with this. It is paid to the householder over 7 years (and commercially over 20 years), reducing running costs and overall, paying off half to two-thirds of the cost of the installation. To qualify for RHI, the key requirement is roof insulation, and if you have cavity walls, then cavity wall insulation.

Myth 8 – They cannot work in old leaky houses. Untrue. Chris presented an example of an old rectory with 290 square metre floor area, that had good roof insulation but with walls that could not be clad, and overall it was a high heat loss building. It cost £3,500 per year using an oil boiler to heat it. Using a brilliantly effective combination of a 10kW solar array and 6 under lawn ‘slinkies’ to feed a GSHP, the heating bill dropped to £1,500 per year.
That is despite the heating system being set to ‘on’ all the time (but obviously, with a thermostat it runs only when the temperature drops below the required temperature). The 80 year old grand mother loves visiting the house now because “it is always so cosy”. Chris is not saying, from this experience, that insulation is unimportant – it is crucial you get good insulation – but where it is not up to modern standards, don’t let that be a reason for not installing renewable heat: That is, a heat pump with or without solar, but preferably with because the solar reduces the amount of electricity used from the grid, and swings the maths in favour of heat pumps (versus gas).

Chris gave another example of a bungalow (177 square metre floor area) that was costing £1,551 per year to heat. With just a 4 kW roof mounted system and a 14 kW ASHP the bill came down to £903. Now this was £168 more saving than they had expected. Why? Chris believes this is down to behavioural change. Instead of the behaviour with traditional gas systems which can heat up a house fast, and people switch up the system when cold and down when hot – creating a see-saw effect – with heat pump systems, people can just keep it on and be comfy at a sensible temperature (whichever is their preference). Increasingly, Chris is persuading householders to refrain from fiddling with the heat controls and allow the system to work as pre-programmed and provide consistent, comfortable but not hotter than required levels of heating. This changes behaviour and actually creates a perception of a cosier home and reduced bills; what is not to like?

The caveat is that we need more skilled fitters who do not put in the wrong sized radiators, or pipe work, and of course householders who don’t leave doors open (trying to heat your local town is not a sensible approach!).

Renewable technologies like solar and heat pumps are not rocket science, but a basic knowledge is required and vendors are very good at providing training. Along with persuading householders to take the plunge we also need to transfer trade skill sets, to acquire the knowledge and experience to help increase adoption. If your plumber says they don’t know anything about heat pumps, encourage them to take a course – to unlearn some old ways and learn some new ways – and they might be in the vanguard of the change to renewable heat in your neighbourhood.

Chris also mentioned that he has found an issue related to Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). The question Chris is asking Government is this:

Why is it that it is government policy to encourage the installation of heat pumps through the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, yet EPCs never recommend them and even discourage them by predicting higher running costs for heat pumps even than old oil boilers contrary to the research carried out by the government in 2013 on which the RHI was based? Does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?

Chris has written a paper EPCs: A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO HEAT PUMPS AND DECARBONISATION going into more detail on this issue, that can be found on the YES website.

Chris covered a number of other points and new developments such as thermal storage, but I hope this summary does justice to what was an excellent and inspiring talk.

We have a climate emergency – we need to start behaving like we actually believe it!

So let’s get to work, and make it happen! There is no excuse for not doing so.

This summary of Chris Wilde’s talk is based on my notes, so will be incomplete, as Chris is a brilliant speaker who doesn’t need a script or use bullet points. So, if any errors have crept in, naturally they are mine. Richard Erskine, 7th Sept. 2019. Any comments please provide via my blog.

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